UK turns corner on vaccine rollout

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The UK has made fast progress with its vaccine rollout, pulling ahead to fourth place in the world for the number of doses administered to date. After a bumpy start, it is a sign that the UK could now be turning a corner in its approach to controlling the spread of the virus. With 3.5m doses already administered, the government’s ambitious vaccination programme — which aims to inoculate the 15m most vulnerable people by mid-February — enters a new phase from today. 

Those over the age of 70 and clinically extremely vulnerable people will now start to receive jabs, hitting what Prime Minister Boris Johnson called a “significant milestone”. A 24-hour vaccination programme is also being piloted in London, and the government expects all citizens to be vaccinated by September.

Yet vaccine supply and production problems may still threaten this initial success. Pfizer, one of the main suppliers of jabs, plans to delay supplies of its vaccine both to the UK and to European countries from this week, creating unplanned delivery hurdles ahead. Plus there is the challenge of containing new coronavirus variants, which may prove resilient to both natural and vaccine-induced immunity.

Meanwhile, Chinese and Russian manufacturers are seeing growing appetite from foreign buyers for their Covid-19 vaccines as the international scramble for vaccines intensifies, despite concerns over trial data and the rigour of domestic approval processes.

Markets

European equity markets struggled for direction as strong economic data from China vied with concerns over a double-dip recession in the UK and the eurozone. The spread of new variants of Covid-19 — and the economic cost of extended winter lockdowns to control the virus — continue to weigh on positive investor sentiment generated by the rollout of vaccines.

Investors are growing adept at ignoring signs of danger until it is too late, writes Katie Martin, and markets are approaching a “boiled frog moment”. There is cause for optimism, but it is dangerous for investors to be complacent, lest they suddenly find themselves in hot water.

Companies and governments in Asia have tapped dollar bond markets at a blistering pace in the opening weeks of 2021, taking advantage of rock-bottom rates to raise funds for acquisitions and cover the costs of the coronavirus crisis.

Business

UK warehouse investment hit a record high last year, as investors sought to ride a boom in online shopping driven by the pandemic and to shift cash from struggling office properties and shopping centres.

Automaker Audi will delay the production of some of its high-end cars because of the “massive” shortage of computer chips that is sweeping across the automotive industry, its chief executive said.

Eurostar has called for a government bailout following the collapse in travel between the UK and European continent © ANP/AFP via Getty Images

Eurostar, the train operator that runs services through the Channel Tunnel, has called for a government bailout following a collapse in travel between Britain and the European continent.

Global economy

China’s economy expanded at a faster rate in 2020 than before coronavirus, beating forecasts and making the country one of the few in the world to register positive growth for the year. Political disarray in the US creates an opportunity for China in the battle for global economic influence, writes Gideon Rachman.

Lockdowns across the eurozone have significantly slowed economic activity, fuelling fears that the bloc faces a double-dip recession, according to widely watched and timely alternative data indicators. Travel to retail and hospitality venues and workplaces, as well as consumer confidence and spending, have taken a hit in the first weeks of this year.

Line chart of government response tracker: stringency index showing how restrictions are tightening again in France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Spain

“Vaccines are wonderful, but they’re not a magic wand,” warns Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the IMF, in an optimistic yet cautionary message. Recovery will be partial and uneven, she says, and will require global co-operation to support health systems and limit the damage of economic scarring.

The essentials

Video: Coronavirus: the race between vaccines and new variants

What risks do new variants of coronavirus pose to vaccination programmes? Vaccines can be tweaked to catch up with new strains of the virus, says Anna Gross in this video explainer, but if this doesn’t happen quickly enough it may push everything back to square one.

Managers who suddenly discovered kindness and compassion in the pandemic need to make it permanent, writes Andrew Hill, rather than reverting to their old ways as they lead their teams into the pandemic aftermath this year.

Vaccine hesitancy is nothing new but it poses employment dilemmas as governments struggle to end a global pandemic, writes Pilita Clark. Employers wanting to get staff back into the office by making Covid-19 shots mandatory will therefore need to think again.

Final thought

Despite the worrisome politics clouding over Hong Kong, it remains a vibrant city with excellent service, amazing food and drinks to be had at every corner, writes the FT’s Asia editor Jamil Anderlini. Tips for Hong Kongers or anyone making notes for later include treating yourself to dim sum at Maxim’s Palace and trying a scenic mountain hike — or taking it easy on the world’s longest outdoor escalator.

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