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Politics

After Senate vote, massive U.S. coronavirus bill moves to the House

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate’s unanimous passage of a $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill sent the unprecedented economic legislation to the House of Representatives, whose Democratic leaders hope to pass it on Friday.

The Republican-led Senate approved the massive bill – which would be the largest fiscal stimulus measure ever passed by Congress – by 96 votes to none late on Wednesday, overcoming bitter partisan negotiations and boosting its chances of passing the Democratic-majority House.

The unanimous vote, a rare departure from bitter partisanship in Washington, underscored how seriously members of Congress are taking the global pandemic as Americans suffer and the medical system reels.

“When there’s a crisis of this magnitude, the private sector cannot solve it,” said Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer.

“Individuals even with bravery and valor are not powerful enough to beat it back. Government is the only force large enough to staunch the bleeding and begin the healing.”

The package is intended to flood the country with cash in a bid to stem the crushing impact on the economy of an intensifying epidemic that has killed more than 900 people in the United States and infected at least 60,000.

It follows two others that became law this month. The money at stake amounts to nearly half of the total $4.7 trillion the U.S. government spends annually.

Republican President Donald Trump, who has promised to sign the bill as soon as it passes the House, expressed his delight on Twitter. “96-0 in the United States Senate. Congratulations AMERICA!” he wrote.

Only two other nations, China and Italy, have more coronavirus cases than the United States. The World Health Organization has warned the United States looks set to become the epicenter of the pandemic.

The House’s Democratic leaders announced that they would have a voice vote on Friday. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she backed the bill, and was open to passing more legislation if needed to address the crisis in future.

The House Republican leadership is recommending a “yes” vote.

The massive bill, worth more than $2 trillion, includes a $500 billion fund to help hard-hit industries and a comparable amount for direct payments of up to $3,000 apiece to millions of families.

The legislation will also provide $350 billion for small-business loans, $250 billion for expanded unemployment aid and at least $100 billion for hospitals and related health systems.

There had been some debate about whether all 430 House members, most of whom have been out of Washington since March 14, would have to return to consider the bill. That would have been difficult, given that at least two have tested positive for coronavirus, a handful of others are in self-quarantine and several states have issued stay-at-home orders.

There are five vacant House seats.

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Sports

Coronavirus: ICC shuts down World Cup cricket qualifiers till July

NEW DELHI (AFP) – Cricket’s governing body postponed a swathe of qualifiers for next year’s Twenty20 World Cup and the 2023 50-over World Cup on Thursday (March 26) as the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc on international sport.

All qualifiers scheduled to take place before July in Kuwait, South Africa, Namibia, Spain, Papua New Guinea, Belgium, Malaysia and Finland are affected, a statement said.

“The decision has been taken in conjunction with members and in line with the relevant government and public health authority advice,” the International Cricket Council (ICC) said.

India will host the T20 World Cup, a revamped version of the former Champions Trophy, in October-November of 2021.

It is not to be confused with this year’s T20 World Cup in Australia.

India will also hold the 50-over World Cup in 2023.

This year’s Indian Premier League, the world’s richest cricket league, is one of the many sports events worldwide to be postponed including the Tokyo Olympics, which have been delayed until next year.

The ICC said this year’s remaining qualifiers are being “continually monitored”.

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Politics

Covid-19 aid: S'poreans can make early use of $500 SkillsFuture Credit top-up, all employers can get training support

SINGAPORE – From May, all employers who send their workers for selected training programmes can receive additional support from SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG) funding, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat announced on Thursday (March 26).

They will receive enhanced absentee payroll support at 90 per cent of hourly basic salary, capped at $10 per hour, up from 80 per cent.

The measure will cover eligible courses that start before Jan 1, 2021, to provide additional cash flow relief for employers in view of the worsening coronavirus situation.

Currently, such support has only been provided for sectors directly affected by the Covid-19 outbreak such as the aviation, tourism, food services and retail trade sectors, and lasts for a shorter period of three months.

From April 1, the enhanced absentee payroll rates will be extended to the land transport and arts and culture sectors. They will also be eligible for enhanced course fee support of up to 90 per cent of course fees, up from a baseline rate of 50 per cent. 

In the Budget in February, it was announced that a one-off SkillsFuture Credit top-up of $500 for Singaporeans aged 25 years and above would be made available from October. Singaporeans will now be able to make early use of the top-up for selected courses from April 1, ahead of its full implementation date, said Mr Heng.  

“I hope this will help many more workers, job seekers, and self-employed persons make use of the down time to learn, develop new skills, and stay employable,” he said.

Mr Heng also emphasised the need to build economic resilience at all levels, including in research and development (R&D), food supply and at the industry level.

The matching rate under the SG Together Enhancing Enterprise Resilience (Steer) programme will now be doubled, with Enterprise Singapore matching $1 for every $2 raised through qualifying industry-led initiatives, he said. The programme supports industry-led initiatives to help companies tide over economic uncertainties, and build longer-term capabilities.

Funds set up by trade associations and chambers (TACs) or other industry groupings to help businesses survive and thrive amid the coronavirus outbreak can apply for the programme.

Examples of what the funds can be used for include helping firms to defray costs such as rental and wages, marketing and branding and productivity solutions.

Mr Heng also urged businesses to make use of this down time to digitalise, restructure and transform.

The SMEs Go Digital Programme, which supports businesses in building technological capabilities, will be enhanced to help SMEs implement safe distancing and business continuity measures.

The maximum support levels for the Productivity Solutions Grant (PSG) and the Enterprise Development Grant (EDG) will be raised to 80 per cent and 90 per cent respectively to spur transformation, he said. The enhancements to these three schemes will last till December (2020).

The PSG defrays the costs for adoption of pre-approved digital solutions, while the EDG encourages the adoption of technology and innovation to increase productivity.

The Covid-19 outbreak has also reinforced the importance of investing in R&D to prepare for critical challenges, such as in managing pandemics and ensuring food security, said Mr Heng. More details on the Government’s R&D investments under its masterplan for research, innovation and enterprise will be provided towards the end of the financial year, he said.

Singapore is also building up its national stockpile of health supplies, including masks and hand sanitisers, said Mr Heng. He added that the country is strengthening its food resilience for the long term and aims to produce 30 per cent of its nutritional needs by 2030, up from less than 10 per cent today.

“Some may be concerned about the impact on our food supplies, arising from supply chain disruptions. We need not worry,” he said, noting that Singapore has in place a robust, multi-pronged strategy to ensure that it continues to have an adequate supply of safe food.

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Politics

U.S. offers $58 billion aid to airlines as governments seek to avert bankruptcies

SINGAPORE/DUBAI (Reuters) – Governments stepped up efforts on Thursday to help airlines hammered by a virus-induced travel slump, with the United States offering $58 billion in aid, Singapore promising to keep its carrier aloft, and Australia easing competition rules.

AirAsia, the region’s biggest budget carrier, was the latest airline to announce sweeping cuts to its schedule in response to the deepening crisis caused by the coronavirus outbreak. It said some of its units would halt flights altogether for a period.

“Nobody can survive this for more than a few months, when you have this unprecedented 95% decline in passenger numbers or even 100% in some cases and you still have all those fixed costs,” said Brendan Sobie, an aviation analyst in Singapore.

In a desperate bid to preserve some revenues and keep global supply chains operating, U.S. Delta Air Lines, Air New Zealand and Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways joined a list of carriers that have turned passenger planes into cargo-only transporters.

About half of the world’s air cargo normally travels in the bellies of passenger planes, so the cancellation of passenger flights has led to a sharp reduction in cargo capacity, with knock on effects to food, industry and other vital trade.

“For airlines, it’s apocalypse now,” said Alexandre de Juniac, director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents carriers around the world.

“Travel restrictions and evaporating demand mean that, aside from cargo, there is almost no passenger business,” he said.

In an unprecedented move, the U.S. Senate passed a $58 billion aid package late on Wednesday, half in the form of grants to cover some 750,000 airline staff wages. Those receiving funds cannot lay off employees before Sept. 30 or change collective bargaining pacts. [L1N2BI0XW]

The bill has restrictions on stock buybacks, dividends and executive pay, and allows the government to take equity, warrants or other compensation as part of the rescue package.

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The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to back the move on Friday. President Donald Trump has promised to sign it.

‘CORPORATE ACTION’

U.S. airlines, like others around the globe, have been reeling from the slide in passenger numbers.

United Airlines Holdings said capacity would drop 68% in April and Alaska Air Group cut its schedule by 70% in April and May. American Airlines suspended its dividend, drew down a $400 million credit line and secured an additional loan.

IATA, which estimates the pandemic will cost the global industry $252 billion in lost revenues this year, said it had written to 18 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including India, Japan and South Korea for emergency support for carriers.

Singapore’s finance minister Heng Swee Keat said Singapore Airlines Ltd would soon announce “corporate action” supported by state investor Temasek Holdings to tackle the crisis. Share trading in the carrier, which said this week it was seeking extra funds, was halted on Thursday.

Malaysian budget airline AirAsia Group said it had suspended some of its international and domestic flights, while its India and Philippines units were suspending all flights for certain periods.

Australia and New Zealand have joined other governments in announcing some financial relief. But this has not stopped carriers from putting staff on leave and grounding planes.

Virgin Australia plans to permanently cut more than 1,000 jobs among the 8,000 staff that have already been stood down. Australia’s Flight Centre Travel Group said it would cut 6,000 travel agent roles globally.

In a move unthinkable under normal conditions, Australia’s competition regulator said it would allow Virgin, Qantas Airways and Regional Express to coordinate flight schedules and share revenue on 10 regional routes.

“We hope that this temporary measure will also support airlines’ ability to again compete with each other on these routes once the pandemic crisis has passed,” Australian Competition and Consumer Commission Chairman Rod Sims said.

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Politics

10,000 jobs to be created over a year, $800 a month to be given to those who lose job amid Covid-19 outbreak

SINGAPORE – Some 10,000 jobs will be created over the next one year to provide employment for locals amid the downturn, while those who lose their jobs due to the coronavirus outbreak can receive a monthly cash grant of $800 for three months.

The unemployment assistance will be for low- and middle-income workers.

A new programme to help fresh graduates entering the job market will also support up to 8,000 traineeships across both large and small enterprises, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said in Parliament on Thursday (March 26).

“First-time job seekers may be concerned about the current job market. These include our students who have just graduated or are graduating from ITE (Institute of Technical Education), polytechnics and universities this year,” he said.

Companies that offer traineeships targeted at local first-time job seekers this year will be able to receive funding from government agency Workforce Singapore under the new SGUnited Traineeship programme.

This will include science and technology traineeships in research and development labs, deep-tech start-ups, accelerators and incubators, said DPM Heng, who is also Finance Minister, in announcing the Supplementary Budget.

More details will be given by the Ministry of Manpower soon, he said.

Also, the SGUnited Jobs initiative to create about 10,000 jobs over the next one year will start with the public sector recruiting for longer-term roles in essential services as well as short-term, temporary jobs.

“Our agencies have been planning our manpower needs early, and there is a range of jobs which we need to fill in emerging areas. We will accelerate hiring plans to fill these roles, while giving our people meaningful employment opportunities,” said Mr Heng.

These include roles in areas such as social services, early childhood education and infocomm technology.

Temporary jobs to handle the increase in Covid-19-related operations will also be available in roles such as health declaration assistants and temporary management support officers, as well as transport ambassadors, as announced earlier this week.

Together with the Singapore Business Federation and other trade associations and chambers, private-sector job opportunities will also be identified in firms recruiting in preparation for the eventual economic recovery, or to cope with disruptions to their labour supply.

An SGUnited Jobs virtual career fair will be launched on Friday with more than 2,200 job vacancies in short-term temporary jobs that are immediately available.

As the impact of Covid-19 on the economy deepens, some workers will lose their jobs or see their incomes significantly reduced, noted DPM Heng, announcing several measures to tide them over.

Low- and middle-income employees who are retrenched or lose their contracts early as a result of Covid-19 can receive a cash grant of $800 a month for three months while they search for a job or attend training.

This applies to Singaporeans and permanent residents aged 16 and above with a monthly household income of up to $10,000 or per capita household income of up to $3,100 a month before becoming unemployed. It does not cover those who were on internships or who are self-employed.

They must also live in a property with an annual value of up to $21,000, and not currently receive ComCare Short-to-Medium Term Assistance or ComCare Interim Assistance.

Applications will be open from May to September this year via social service offices (SSOs), while those who need financial assistance in April can contact SSOs or community centres to apply for assistance from a new Temporary Relief Fund.

In addition, the Government will exercise more flexibility when considering applications for the social assistance scheme ComCare during this period.

A total of 63,900 residents were unemployed as of December last year, according to Ministry of Manpower data.

DPM Heng said a total of $145 million will be set aside for these schemes and increased flexibility for ComCare applications.

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World News

Off-licences to stay open during lockdown as they’re deemed ‘essential’

Off-licences, public loos and credit unions will stay open after being added to the list of "essential shops" during the coronavirus shutdown.

The updated list clarifies which businesses can stay open after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the shutdown of "non-essential" stores in the UK in a bid to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Other shops and stores that will stay open include cash points, car rental services, banks and post offices.

Boris Johnson had already announced that supermarkets, pharmacies and newsagents were allowed to stay open as they are classed as essential.

The PM announced to the nation this week that residents will only be allowed to leave their homes for shopping for basic necessities — and that these should be kept as infrequent as possible.

He said: "You should not be going shopping except for essentials like food and medicine — and you should do this as little as you can. And use food delivery services where you can.

“If you don’t follow the rules the police will have the powers to enforce them, including through fines and dispersing gatherings.”

The lockdown has also seen the closure of libraries, playgrounds, outdoor gyms and places of worship.

Mr Johnson has said people can now only go outside for shopping, one form of exercise a day, for a medical need, or to travel to or from work.

The government has however encouraged online shopping, retailers will still stay open for online orders and that people can still have items delivered to their homes.

Although, Asda, Tesco and Sainsbury's are among the supermarkets whose websites have crashed since the lockdown announcement due to an overload of shoppers.

Sainsbury's introduced a new delivery policy on Monday to ensure the elderly and most vulnerable are given priority.

Many supermarkets are taking steps to ensure the most vulnerable have access to essentials.

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World News

Number of coronavirus cases in Germany rises to 36,508: RKI

BERLIN (Reuters) – The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in Germany has risen to 36,508 and 198 people have died of the disease, statistics from the Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases showed on Thursday.

Cases rose by 4,995 compared with the previous day while the death toll climbed by 50, the tally showed.

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Politics

U.S. Senate approves big rescue for struggling aviation sector

WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate voted late Wednesday 96-0 to give the U.S. aviation industry $58 billion in a coronavirus-rescue package, half in the form of grants to cover some 750,000 employees’ paychecks, in a badly needed lifeline for an industry facing the worst travel downturn in history.

The $2 trillion economic rescue package awards passenger airlines $25 billion in grants and $25 billion in loans, cargo carriers another $8 billion divided between loans and grants, and airport contractors like caterers up to $3 billion in grants. The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote to approve the measure Friday and President Donald Trump has promised to sign it into law.

Senate Republicans had fought what they called a give away to airlines and initially offered only loans, while airlines had threatened to start laying off tens of thousands within days if they did not get cash.

“This is not a corporate bailout; it’s a rescue package for workers,” said Association of Flight Attendants Sara Nelson, who spearheaded the idea of direct payroll grants for employees ranging from janitorial staff and gate agents to mechanics and pilots.

Reuters reported Chao worked the phones late into the night talking to air carriers about what they needed to ensure they could maintain payrolls, a person briefed on call on Tuesday that lawmakers were nearing agreement on a deal for cash grants for payroll and other employee costs, after airlines made a last-minute effort to convince lawmakers they needed the cash to prevent furloughing tens of thousands of workers.

U.S. airline shares extended a Tuesday rally on hopes for cash relief and under the bill airlines are set to get cash assistance in as little as two weeks.

Republican Senator Pat Toomey, whose party had proposed $58 billion in loans, said on Wednesday the grants were a key sticking point. He said Democrats insisted “we give away money to airlines and never get it back.”

In a win for labor, companies receiving funds cannot lay off employees before Sept. 30 or change collective bargaining agreements.

The bill has restrictions on stock buybacks, dividends and executive compensation, and allows the government to take equity, warrants or other compensation as part of the rescue package, but does not require it.

Airlines would also receive tax relief on fuel purchases and, in a move that may bring down passenger fares, a temporary suspension on ticket taxes.

As the coronavirus has spread around the world, travel demand has plummeted, with airlines drastically reducing flights and warning of more cuts to come.

Airlines keep canceling flights, borrowing money and slashing costs as demand falls.

Alaska Airlines said Wednesday it would cut its flights by 70% in April and May, while United Airlines said Wednesday would now cut 52% of U.S. flights and overall capacity by 68%. On Tuesday, 279,018 people were screened at all U.S. airport checkpoints, down 87% over last year.

Airlines accepting loans may have to ensure certain air services in order to maintain health care and pharmaceutical supply chains, including to remote communities, but other consumer and environmental protections sought by many Democrats did not make it into the bill.

Airlines and unions won crucial support for the grants from U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who worked the phones late into the night, telling lawmakers and others in the administration she was concerned about the impact of job losses and a decline in the U.S. aviation sector on competition, people briefed on the matter said.

“Without grants, airlines may be forced to choose bankruptcy over federal loans, if loan conditions are too inflexible,” Chao warned in a memo seen by Reuters.

Airlines have argued that they are key to restarting the economy once the coronavirus outbreak subsides.

U.S. airports, whose concourses have been nearly empty, are set to receive $10 billion in grants.

The government will also provide $25 billion in grants for U.S. transit systems and $1 billion for U.S. passenger railroad Amtrak, that have seen ridership fall dramatically as states ordered tens of millions of Americans to stay home and avoid non-essential travel.

Boeing Co could receive government loans under a $17 billion fund set aside for direct national security-related loans, Toomey said, adding that many companies could qualify. Boeing could also qualify under the broader $454 billion loan program.

“It is not meant to be exclusively for Boeing… You should not think of it as a Boeing allocation,” Toomey said.

Boeing had sought at least $60 billion in government loan guarantees for itself and the entire aerospace manufacturing sector. Boeing did not comment on Wednesday.

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Sports

Coronavirus: UFC star Conor McGregor gives €1 million for protective equipment to Irish hospitals

LONDON (AFP) – UFC star Conor McGregor has spent €1 million (S$1.58 million) on protective equipment for hospital staff treating patients with the coronavirus in Ireland.

The Irishman sent a message to the Republic of Ireland’s Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe and revealed the contents on his Twitter page.

Donohoe had written to McGregor, asking the mixed martial arts exponent to tell his 7.9 million Twitter followers to practise social distancing.

“Today I am purchasing myself, one million euro worth of personal protective equipment to be deployed to all the fighting hospitals in the Leinster region. Our most affected region, to this date,” McGregor said.

“St James’s, Mater, Tallaght, Beaumont, Vincent’s (hospitals). Where we would be without these brave men and women, I do not know. May God bless over them and keep them safe!”

He also called on the Irish government to go further in its efforts to fight the virus and implement more stringent lockdown measures.

“I feel like we are moving in the right way, it just feels to me like it is not all the way,” he said.

“I urge all the way! ‘All in’ is the term we must use here. Bit by bit will cost us lives.

“To see what is happening here in Ireland and all across the globe is heartbreaking to me. I pray.

“God speed Minister and thank you for the message, and your service to our nation.”

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Politics

Coronavirus: Resilience Budget will save jobs, support firms as S’pore faces biggest challenge in over a decade: Heng Swee Keat

SINGAPORE – The supplementary budget to be presented in Parliament on Thursday afternoon (March 26) is to be called the Resilience Budget, and it will help to save jobs and support companies, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat.

More will be given to those who have been hardest hit.

Households will also receive additional help to tide through this difficult period, he said.

In a post on Facebook, Mr Heng said that the coronavirus outbreak will be with Singapore for many months to come. “Our resilience as a country, as a society, is being put to the test as we face our biggest challenge in more than a decade.”

What is key, he said, is for all Singaporeans to do their part and “make the best use of what we have”.

“Various analysts and business leaders have been guessing about the size of the Budget, and its reach,” he wrote.

“It is important not to have excessive expectations or merely focus on the headline numbers. What is more important is that all of us do our part and make the best use of whatever we have.”

Grim economic data released on Thursday morning showed that Singapore’s economy shrank 2.2 per cent in the first quarter of this year, and is headed for a full-year recession – its first in two decades. The Ministry of Trade and Industry downgraded its 2020 growth forecast to a range of -4 to -1 per cent.

Mr Heng, who is also Minister for Finance, said the Covid-19 global pandemic was Singapore’s biggest challenge after the global financial crisis in 2008.

“I still remember vividly the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, when I was heading up the Monetary Authority of Singapore. Those were dark days, but we bounced back,” he said.

“This time around, we face not just an economic crisis, but also a global pandemic.”

Mr Heng assured Singaporeans that the Resilience Budget to be presented at 3.30pm in Parliament will give people much-needed economic support.

This second stimulus plan is in addition to the more than $6 billion that has already been set aside in the February budget, called the Unity Budget, to help Singaporeans grapple with the economic fallout from the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

Measures announced then include a $4 billion package to keep workers in jobs and help companies with cash flow, $1.6 billion for a one-time payout to every Singaporean aged 21 and above and $800 million to support front-line agencies fighting the outbreak.

“Together, we can weather the storm and emerge stronger as one Singapore,” said Mr Heng.

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