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EU says Britain had chance to join ventilator procurement scheme

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Britain was given a chance to participate in a European Union scheme to buy ventilators to fight the coronavirus, the EU said on Friday, after London said it had not joined because it missed the invitation in an e-mail mixup.

The EU launched a joint procurement procedure on March 17 to buy ventilators on behalf of 25 members states, in a bid to cut prices and reduce competition among EU nations seeking the machines which help coronavirus patients breathe and are in short supply.

Britain, which is entitled to participate in such schemes under an 11-month transition deal since leaving the EU in January, did not join it.

That attracted criticism at home from opponents who accused the government of prioritizing “Brexit over breathing” – so determined to act independently of the bloc that it would risk public health in the coronavirus crisis.

A British government spokesman said on Thursday London had not rejected the scheme deliberately, but had stayed out because it missed the invitation, due to an e-mail mixup. Britain would consider joining such joint procurement schemes in the future.

However, an EU spokesman said on Friday British officials had attended several meetings at which the scheme was discussed, and Britain had been given a chance to say if it wanted to be included.

Schemes to buy ventilators and other medical gear were “discussed several times in the meetings of the health security committee where the UK participated,” the spokesman said.

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“Member states and the UK had the opportunity to signal their interest to participate in any joint procurement” at the meetings and via an EU communication system, he said.

The EU is analyzing offers received on Thursday on the procurement for ventilators, the EU spokesman said.

Offers were also received this week for an earlier EU procurement for face masks, gloves and visors for medical staff launched a month ago. If contracts are signed, goods could be received in coming weeks.

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China's Wuhan, where the coronavirus emerged, begins to lift its lockdown

WUHAN, China (Reuters) – The Chinese city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus outbreak first emerged, began lifting a two-month lockdown on Saturday by restarting some metro services and reopening borders, allowing some semblance of normality to return and families to reunite.

After being cut-off from the rest of the country for two months, the reopening of Wuhan, where the epidemic first erupted in late December, marks a turning point in China’s fight against the virus, though the contagion has since spread to over 200 countries.

Among those on the first high-speed trains allowed into the city on Saturday morning was Guo Liangkai, a 19-year-old student whose one-month work stint in Shanghai stretched to three months due to the clamp down on movement.

“It makes me very happy that I can see my family,” Guo told Reuters after being greeted by his mother at the main station.

“We wanted to hug but now is a special period so we can’t hug or take any actions like these.”

Authorities took draconian measures to stop people from entering or leaving the industrial city of 11 million people in central China. Families were confined to their homes. Bus and taxi services were shut, and only essential stores were allowed to remain open.

“I think the resumption of work represents a kind of hope. It at least shows that China is victorious,” said Zhang Yulun, 35, returning to Wuhan for work.

China’s National Health Commission said on Saturday that 54 new coronavirus cases were reported on the mainland on Friday, all involving so-called imported cases. Mainland China now has 81,394 cases, with the death toll rising by three to 3,295, the commission said.

Wuhan accounts for about 60% of China’s coronavirus cases, but they have fallen sharply in recent weeks, a sign that the measures are working. The last confirmed locally transmitted case of the virus in Wuhan was on Monday.

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With the United States, Italy and Spain and other countries now battling soaring infections, China is focusing on the risk posed by imported cases – most of them Chinese returning home.

Effective Saturday, China suspended the entry of foreign nationals with valid Chinese visas and residence permits.

DISINFECTANT AND MASKS

But even with the decline in cases and loosening of restrictions, Wuhan authorities were taking few chances.

Staff, some in full-body protective gear, and volunteers bustled around the railway station in the morning, setting out hand disinfectant and putting up signs reminding travelers they need a mobile-phone based health code to take public transport.

A worker walked through one metro train carrying a signboard reading: “Wear a mask for the entire journey, people should not gather and when you disembark please scan the health code.”

“Everyone is taking the right precautions. So, there shouldn’t be a problem,” Yuan Hai, 30, a passenger on a reopened metro line said when asked about the risks. “But you have to be careful.”

The existence of an unknown number of asymptomatic carriers of coronavirus in China has raised concerns among the public that lifting the restrictions may release thousands of people who could still be spreading the virus that causes COVID-19, without knowing they are sick.

Life in Wuhan remains far from normal. The vast majority of shops are shut while bright yellow roadblocks remain. Wuhan will not let people leave the city until April 8.

Some people at the railway station, such as a woman who only gave her surname as Zhang, said they were there to see if there was any chance people could leave earlier.

Her grandson came to visit her for the week-long Lunar New Year holiday in January and has been separated from his parents in the southern city of Shenzhen ever since. With schools there possibly reopening, she hopes he can get back soon.

“He was supposed to leave on the fifth day (of the holiday) but has now been here for a few months,” she said.

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Politics

House takes up $2.2 trillion coronavirus bill, as Trump blasts holdout congressman

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Armed with hand sanitizer and discouraged from using elevators, members of the U.S. House of Representatives convened on Friday to quickly pass a sweeping $2.2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill, though it was unclear whether they would be forced to delay.

Leadership of the Democratic-controlled chamber and top Republicans aimed to pass the largest relief measure that Congress has ever taken up in a voice vote, one of the fastest methods available, and pass it on to Republican President Donald Trump for his signature.

“Today’s vote is about saving lives and livelihoods,” said Republican Representative Kevin Brady. “Congress must act together and act aggressively now to stem this crisis.”

As debate commenced, lawmakers sat several seats apart from each other, maintaining distance as they waited for a chance to speak. The House scheduled three hours of debate, headed toward a possible vote around noon EDT (1600 GMT).

There could be opposition. Republican Representative Thomas Massie said he was uncomfortable with the idea of allowing the massive package to pass by voice vote and indicated he may force the chamber to hold a formal, recorded vote. That could delay action until Saturday.

As the House debated, Trump lashed out at Massie on Twitter, calling him a “third rate Grandstander.”

“He just wants the publicity. He can’t stop it, only delay,” the president wrote in a series of tweets. “…. throw Massie out of Republican Party!”

To minimize the threat of infection due to the coronavirus, the Capitol has laid out special procedures. Members are barred from sitting next to one another and would be called from their offices alphabetically for the vote. They will be required to use hand sanitizer before entering the chamber and encouraged to take the stairs, rather than use elevators, to better maintain social distancing.

Most of the House’s 430 current members are in their home districts because of the coronavirus outbreak and would need to go to Washington if Massie forces a recorded vote – which could put them at further risk of contagion.

Older people have proven especially vulnerable to the disease, and the average age of House members was 58 years old at the beginning of 2019, well above the average age of 38 for the U.S. population as whole.

The rescue package – which would be the largest fiscal relief measure ever passed by Congress – will rush direct payments to Americans within three weeks if the House backs it and Trump signs it into law. It passed the Republican-led Senate unanimously on Wednesday night.

The $2.2 trillion measure includes $5 00 billion to help hard-hit industries and $290 billion for payments of up to $3,000 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.

VOICE VOTE SOUGHT

The rare but deep, bipartisan support in Congress underscored how seriously lawmakers are taking the global pandemic as Americans suffer and the medical system threatens to buckle.

Pelosi said House leaders were planning to fast-track the rescue plan by passing it via a voice vote on Friday. She had said that if there were calls for a roll-call vote, lawmakers might be able to vote remotely as not all would be able to be in Washington.

It was unclear whether Massie would block the measure.

“I’m having a real hard time with this,” Massie, an outspoken fiscal conservative, said on 55KRC talk radio in Cincinnati.

Democratic Representative Dean Phillips asked Massie on Twitter to let his colleagues know if he intended to delay the bill’s passage “RIGHT NOW so we can book flights and expend about $200,000 in taxpayer money to counter your principled but terribly misguided stunt.”

The United States surpassed China and Italy on Thursday as the country with the most coronavirus cases. The number of U.S. cases passed 82,000, and the death toll reached almost 1,200.

The Labor Department reported the number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits surged to 3.28 million, the highest level ever.

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British PM Johnson has coronavirus, self-isolates in Downing Street

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has tested positive for the coronavirus and is self-isolating at his Downing Street residence but said he would still lead the government’s response to the accelerating outbreak.

Johnson, 55, experienced mild symptoms on Thursday, a day after he answered questions at a weekly question-and-answer session in parliament’s House of Commons chamber. He received the positive test result at around midnight.

“I’ve taken a test. That has come out positive,” Johnson said on Friday in a video statement broadcast on Twitter. “I’ve developed mild symptoms of the coronavirus. That’s to say – a temperature and a persistent cough.”

“Be in no doubt that I can continue, thanks to the wizardry of modern technology, to communicate with all my top team to lead the national fightback against coronavirus,” he said.

Health minister Matt Hancock, another senior member of the British government’s response, said he had also tested positive and was self-isolating at home with mild symptoms. The government’s top medical adviser also said he had symptoms.

Johnson is the first leader of a major power to announce a positive test result for coronavirus. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went into isolation this month after his wife tested positive for the virus.

U.S. President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have both been tested, so far with negative results.

Trump, in remarks at the White House, said he spoke with Johnson on Friday to wish him a speedy recovery. “Before he even said hello he said, ‘we need ventilators,’” Trump said.

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“I said, ‘wow that’s a big statement.’ Hopefully he’s going to be in good shape,” Trump said.

Johnson chaired a government meeting on the coronavirus on Friday morning via teleconference.

His designated deputy is foreign minister Dominic Raab. Britain does not have a publicised contingency plan in case senior ministers were incapacitated.

Britain has recorded more than 14,500 coronavirus cases and the death toll had risen to 759 as of Thursday afternoon, up by nearly a third in 24 hours. It is the seventh highest official death toll after Italy, Spain, China, Iran, the United States and France.

MODEST EARLY APPROACH

Britain, which has the world’s fifth largest economy, initially took an approach to containing the spread of the disease that was modest in comparison to European countries such as Italy.

But Johnson imposed stringent controls after projections showed a quarter of a million people could die. On Monday, he banned Britons from leaving their homes for all non-essential reasons, effectively shutting down large parts of the economy.

It was unclear where Johnson was infected or how many staff and ministers would need to isolate themselves.

Johnson last appeared at a news conference on Wednesday, flanked by the government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, and England’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty. The event was closed, with journalists asking questions by video link.

A spokesman said that the moment Johnson felt symptoms he took steps to avoid close contact, and ministers would need to self-isolate if they developed symptoms.

Whitty said he was experiencing symptoms and would also self-isolate.

The official guidance is for people to stand two metres (around six feet) apart to prevent contagion. This was not always adhered to for some of Johnson’s earlier news conferences.

Senior minister Michael Gove chaired Friday’s virtual conference alongside public health officials who announced plans to test health workers for the virus and the approval of two new temporary hospitals in Manchester and Birmingham.

MEALS AT THE DOOR

Johnson will have meals delivered to the door of an apartment at 11 Downing Street, while he self-isolates.

“The doors between Number 10 and Number 11 have been closed off to all other staff who work in the building,” a Downing Street spokesman said.

Rishi Sunak, who as finance minister works out of Number 11, is not self-isolating, a Treasury source said.

Johnson’s office did not say whether the prime minister’s partner, Carrie Symonds, who is pregnant, had been tested. But Johnson’s seven-day quarantine, rather than the 14-day period for infected households, implied she was not with him as he self-isolates.

Britons paid tribute to health workers on Thursday evening by clapping and cheering from doorways. Johnson and Sunak took part but came out of separate doors and did not come into close contact.

Queen Elizabeth, 93, last saw Johnson on March 11 and she remains in good health, Buckingham Palace said. Their regular audiences have recently conducted by telephone.

Prince Charles, the 71-year-old heir to the British throne, tested positive for coronavirus this week and has mild symptoms. He is in good health and self-isolating in Scotland.

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British PM Johnson has coronavirus, self-isolates in Downing Street

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has tested positive for coronavirus and is self-isolating at his Downing Street residence but said he would still lead the government’s response to the accelerating outbreak.

Johnson, 55, experienced mild symptoms on Thursday, a day after he answered questions at the prime minister’s weekly question-and-answer session in parliament’s House of Commons chamber. He received the positive test result at around midnight.

“I’ve taken a test. That has come out positive,” Johnson said on Friday in a video statement broadcast on Twitter. “I’ve developed mild symptoms of the coronavirus. That’s to say – a temperature and a persistent cough.

“Be in no doubt that I can continue, thanks to the wizardry of modern technology, to communicate with all my top team to lead the national fightback against coronavirus.”

Shortly after Johnson’s announcement, health minister Matt Hancock, another top member of the British government’s response, said he has also tested positive and is self-isolating at home with mild symptoms.

Johnson is the first leader of a major power to announce a positive test result for coronavirus. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went into isolation earlier this month after his wife tested positive for the virus.

U.S. President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have both been tested, so far with negative results.

Johnson chaired a government meeting on the coronavirus on Friday morning via teleconference.

It was not immediately clear what the British government’s contingency plan is if Johnson and his senior ministers are incapacitated. His designated deputy is foreign minister Dominic Raab.

Britain has recorded more than 14,500 cases of the illness and the death toll shot up to 759 as of Thursday afternoon, up by nearly a third in 24 hours. This is the seventh highest official death toll in the world after Italy, Spain, China, Iran, the United States and France.

MODEST EARLY APPROACH

The coronavirus is the worst global health crisis since the 1918 influenza epidemic. Britain, which has the world’s fifth largest economy, initially took an approach to containing the spread of the disease that was modest in comparison to European countries such as Italy.

But Johnson changed tack and imposed stringent controls after projections showed a quarter of a million people could die. On Monday he banned Britons from leaving their homes for all non-essential reasons, effectively shutting down large parts of the economy.

Now he is in isolation too.

“I am working from home. I’m self-isolating,” Johnson said.

It was unclear where he was infected or how many government staff and senior ministers would need to isolate themselves after dozens of daily meetings, including news conferences, in Downing Street.

Johnson last appeared at a daily news conference on Wednesday, flanked by the government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, and the government’s top medical adviser, Chris Whitty. The event was closed, with journalists asking questions by video link.

A spokesman said that the moment Johnson felt symptoms he took steps to avoid close contact, adding that ministers would need to self-isolate if they developed symptoms. The spokesman was unaware of further testing among senior ministers.

The official guidance is for people to stand two meters (6.5 feet) apart to prevent contagion. This was not always adhered to for some of Johnson’s earlier press conferences when he appeared with other top officials, although the distance between lecterns had been increased by Wednesday.

MEALS AT THE DOOR

Johnson will have his meals delivered to the door of an apartment at Number 11 Downing Street, while he self-isolates for seven days from the warren of corridors and rooms that make up the seat of British political power at Number 10 Downing Street.

“The doors between Number 10 and Number 11 have been closed off to all other staff who work in the building,” a Downing Street spokesman said. “The PM will work from the office and the study in Number 11.”

His finance minister, Rishi Sunak, who traditionally works out of Number 11 Downing Street, is not self-isolating, a Treasury source said.

It was not immediately clear whether Johnson’s 32-year-old partner, Carrie Symonds, who is pregnant, had been tested.

Britons paid tribute to health workers on Thursday evening, clapping and cheering from doorways and windows. Johnson and Sunak took part, but came out of separate entrances on Downing Street and did not come into close contact, according to a Reuters photographer at the scene.

Queen Elizabeth last saw Johnson on March 11 and she remains in good health, Buckingham Palace said. The 93-year-old monarch usually sees the prime minister once a week but has recently conducted the regular audience by telephone.

“The queen last saw the PM on the 11th March and is following all the appropriate advice with regards to her welfare,” a palace spokesman said.

Prince Charles, the 71-year-old heir to the British throne, tested positive for coronavirus earlier this week. He is in good health and is now self-isolating at his residence in Scotland with mild symptoms along with his wife Camilla, who tested negative, his office said.

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World News

Canada can ignore drug, device patents during outbreak under new law

TORONTO (Reuters) – Canada’s emergency legislation on the coronavirus crisis gives the health minister powers to circumvent patent law and ensure medical supplies, medication or vaccines can be produced locally.

The measures could be used if demand exceeds supply or when a patent holder cannot produce for Canada, said Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada in a statement on Thursday.

Patent holders would receive “adequate remuneration.”

“These provisions will help ensure that the existence of a patent covering an existing or new vaccine or treatment is not a barrier to securing needed supplies when those supplies cannot be secured from the patentee,” said the ministry.

The ministry said the new provisions applied equally to all patented inventions. They expire on Sept. 30, 2020.

Ventilators could be the legislation’s first target, pharmaceutical consultancy PDCI Market Access said in a note to clients. “The authorizations are not referred to as compulsory licenses in the legislation, however, that is their effect,” the note said.

Canada’s main pharmaceutical lobby group, Innovative Medicines Canada, said it was concerned that the legislation did not require the government to check in with the original manufacturer to see what it can supply before authorizing others to step in.

The bill, passed on Wednesday, accelerates a process that was already possible during public health emergencies, said Richard Gold, a pharmaceutical law expert at McGill University.

“This legislation makes it clear that companies that try to raise prices or assert patents during the crisis will be ignored,” and their patented products supplied by other companies, he said.

On March 19, Israel approved a generic version of AbbVie Inc’s anti-viral Kaletra as a possible treatment for COVID-19, even though the company’s patent does not expire in Israel until 2024. One recent study found the drug was not effective.

(This story adds dropped word in ninth paragraph)

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Famously boisterous Nigerian mega-city Lagos adjusts to coronavirus lockdown

LAGOS (Reuters) – Fear of the coronavirus has induced an extraordinary calm in Lagos, Nigeria’s famously boisterous mega-city where streets known for miles of gridlock have emptied of traffic and eateries serving takeaways are almost the only shops open.

The largest city in sub-Saharan Africa, with an estimated 20 million population, has been transformed by a week-long shutdown of public life imposed as part of efforts to stem the spread of the highly infectious disease in Nigeria.

The lockdown order by Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu applies to all non-essential shops – those not selling food, water or medicine – in the sprawling market megalopolis near Nigeria’s Atlantic Ocean coast.

He also banned gatherings of over 25 people and told everyone to stay home with the majority of Nigeria’s confirmed cases – 44 out of 65 – surfacing in Lagos and the state’s health minister warning that the coronavirus is spreading.

As the lockdown began, most residents were compliant but afraid – both of getting sick and of losing much-needed income.

“I believe some of our traders will be stubborn or so because most of them do not have (food) to eat at home,” said Fatai Adedabo, head of Computer Village, a collective market selling electronic accessories and offering phone repairs.

“We still have to monitor them and make sure the market is shut down totally.”

Adedabo was not alone in worrying that poverty could hinder containment of the respiratory pandemic, which has infected more than 531,600 people worldwide and killed more than 24,000.

Sanwu-Olu conceded that a 100% lockdown was not possible due to the large numbers of Lagos residents who could not afford to stockpile essentials. Nigeria’s Senate president said on Thursday authorities needed to help shield the poor from suffering the most on account of blanket closures.

Out of sight of police and yellow-vested enforcement officers patrolling Computer Village, some phone repairman expressed frustration with the shutdown and told Reuters they would continue to seek new clients.

But by mid-morning on Friday, the first full day of the lockdown, most in the typically teeming and exuberant city appeared to be soberly accepting the closure.

Crowds that usually throng the roads were replaced by people walking in pairs, or alone, and the ubiquitous yellow “danfo” buses that are usually packed to the brim carried just a few customers.

As people adjusted under the careful watch of police, many agreed the effort to contain the coronavirus was necessary.

“It will not be easy for us as human beings because this is where we make our money, this is where we make our daily bread,” said Olugbenga Bright, a phone repairman with a wife and children to support. “So we need money, fine, but above all our lives – our safety is the priority.”

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G20 leaders commit to united front against pandemic

DUBAI (Reuters) – G20 leaders said during on Thursday they were committed to presenting a united front against the coronavirus pandemic, calling it their “absolute priority” to tackle its health, social and economic impacts.

During an video conference of the world’s major economies, the leaders said they were committed to restoring confidence, preserving financial stability and reviving growth.

They said they were committed to resolving disruptions to global supply chains and asked finance ministers and central bank governors to coordinate regularly together and with international organizations to develop an action plan in response to the pandemic.

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World News

Egypt reports 39 new coronavirus cases, three deaths

CAIRO (Reuters) – Egypt on Thursday reported 39 new coronavirus cases and three deaths, the health ministry said in a statement, bringing the total number of infections to 495 including 24 fatalities.

The new cases are all Egyptians who were in contact with other patients, with the exception of one Libyan man. The three dead are all Egyptians from Cairo, a 30-year woman and two men aged 78 and 72 years.

The statement added that 102 of the people infected had recovered and been released from a quarantine hospital.

Egypt on Tuesday declared two-week a curfew from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

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Business

Singapore Airlines obtains $13 billion rescue package amid coronavirus shock

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – State investor Temasek Holdings and others will inject as much as S$19 billion ($13.27 billion) of liquidity into Singapore Airlines (SIA) (SIAL.SI) in the single biggest rescue for an airline slammed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The massive financing plan, which drove SIA shares down as much as 10.5% on Friday, underscores the depth of financial trouble for the global airline industry, with nearly one-third of the world’s aircraft already grounded because of the pandemic, according to data provider Cirium.

Many governments worldwide have already stepped in to help airlines amid the virus-induced travel slump, with the United States offering $58 billion in aid. Many carriers have grounded fleets and ordered thousands of workers on unpaid leave to keep afloat.

The S$5.3 billion equity and up to S$9.7 billion convertible note portions of the Singapore Airlines fundraising are being underwritten by Temasek, which owns about 55% of the group.

The carrier has also obtained a S$4 billion bridge loan facility with the country’s biggest lender, DBS Group Holdings Ltd (DBSM.SI), to support near-term liquidity requirements.

“This is an exceptional time for the SIA Group,” SIA Chairman Peter Seah said in a statement late on Thursday.

SIA’s shares went into a rare trading halt earlier Thursday after plunging to their lowest in 22 years this week as investors feared the virus will have a deep impact on the company.

“Under the current dire circumstances, the rights issue is the best tactical move for SIA. It underscores the carrier’s strategic importance to Singapore and the island state’s position as both a financial center and aviation hub,” Shukor Yusof, head of aviation consultancy Endau Analytics, said in a blog post.

SIA has said it would cut capacity by 96%, ground almost its entire fleet and impose cost cuts affecting about 10,000 staff amid what it called the “greatest challenge” it had ever faced.

The rights issue will be offered at S$3 per share, a 53.8% discount to SIA’s last traded price of S$6.5.

“While the raising looks earnings and valuation decretive, SIA now looks well positioned to ride out the storm with balance sheet concerns largely de-risked,” BofA analysts told clients.

Temasek International Chief Executive Dilhan Pillay Sandrasegara said the deal would not only tide SIA over a short-term liquidity challenge but would position it for growth beyond the pandemic.

SIA said it would use the funding from the rights issues to beef up its capital and operational expenditure needs.

On Thursday, the Singapore government announced more than $30 billion in new measures to help businesses and households brace against the pandemic.

Finance minister Heng Swee Keat had also said that SIA would announce support from Temasek and that he welcomed Temasek’s decision to support the airline.

Qantas Airways (QAN.AX) this week secured A$1.05 billion ($636.1 million) against its aircraft fleet.

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