By Powerscourt on 19/11/2020

Powerscourt Coronavirus Briefing – 19 November 2020


Scientists are showing they can build the weapons to win the war against COVID-19. Now over to the politicians to organise the battle.

Increasing amounts of positive efficacy and safety data printing out in recent days from a number of developers show that their vaccines essentially work. Politicians, who haven’t covered themselves in glory in their joined-up handling of the crisis so far, need to co-ordinate to get them out to citizens.

Pfizer Inc and its partner BioNTech on Wednesday dispelled most lingering doubts that its vaccine works. The  vaccine has demonstrated over 95% efficacy in a pivotal study, better than the interim data it put out last week.

In global Phase III trials involving more than 43,000 people, 170 subjects contracted coronavirus, 162 of which had been given a placebo, Pfizer and its partner BioNTech said on Wednesday.

Just eight of those who had received two shots of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine developed the disease and only one became seriously ill.

Albert Bourla, Chief Executive of Pfizer said: “The study results mark an important step in this historic eight-month journey to bring forward a vaccine capable of helping to end this devastating pandemic. We continue to move at the speed of science to compile all the data collected thus far and share with regulators around the world.”

Pfizer and BioNTech said they would submit their vaccine for US and EU regulatory approval within days.

The first full data set from a Phase III study comes days after rival developer Moderna reported similarly high levels of efficacy in a different vaccine trial. Russia’s Sputnik vaccine candidate has also reported interim efficacy over 90%. There was further good news early Thursday when data from AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford on a Phase II study showed that their vaccine generates a strong immune response in older adults, raising the hope that it could help protect those most at risk from the virus. While not conclusive, these data suggest that it will be possible to safeguard the most clinically vulnerable, accelerating the potential for the world to return to “normal”.

But where science has succeeded, politics has yet to deliver.

Bill Gates, Microsoft founder and billionaire philanthropist, told STAT News, a US health website, on Tuesday that the next big hurdle was distributing vaccines. “I’m worried about vaccine distribution not going to the right people,” Gates said. “Wow, it is a dysfunctional set of people at the moment.”

His concern comes as US deaths from COVID-19 surpassed 250,000, with new daily infections topping 160,000. New York, which had over the summer months appeared to have recovered faster than other US regions from the virus, will shut its public school system from today, a point of bitter disappointment for its citizens.

Mounting frustration with politicians about their response to COVID-19 has led usually diplomatic business leaders to speak out. Jamie Dimon, Chief Executive of JP Morgan Chase, said US politicians are messing up by failing to agree a new stimulus bill which has been held up amid the post-election finger-pointing.

“This is childish behaviour on the part of our politicians,” Dimon said of an impasse between US Democrats and Republicans over how much additional spending should be earmarked to help people who have lost income. “Just get it done,” he told a New York Times conference.

In the UK a senior health official said that it may be possible to allow some social mixing to take place at Christmas, but it would come at a price: tougher restrictions before and after the holiday.

Susan Hopkins, a medical adviser to the government, suggested that there was potential to allow families to celebrate Christmas together but that this would likely have an impact on the infection rate which would require continued adherence to the guidelines after the holiday.

The UK government’s advisory body Sage has suggested that up to five days of tough restrictions could be needed to compensate for every day of loosening.

Infection rates are still high across most of Europe. The UK on Wednesday reported just over 19,000 new cases with 529 deaths.

Asian stocks drifted lower into Thursday amid growing concern about infection rates in the US and elsewhere and frustration over the pace of stimulus packages.





The London-listed safety, health and environmental technology company has reported a 12% fall in pretax profit for the first half of fiscal 2021 as revenue fell, and adjusted its full-year guidance. Halma said pretax profit for the six months ended 30 September was £93.6 million, compared with £105.8 million for the first half of fiscal 2020. Adjusted pretax profit, a key metric for Halma, was £122 million compared with £128.8 million in the same period the year before. 

Johnson Matthey
Chemicals maker Johnson Matthey today reported a slump in half-year profit and stayed away from providing an outlook for 2021, as the pandemic continued to dent demand for its pollution filters. The company, one of Europe’s leading producers of autocatalysts, said profit before tax for the six months ended 30 September slumped to £26 million from £225 million last year. 

Keller Group
Keller Group reported this morning that it expects to beat market consensus for 2020, with full-year results anticipated at similar levels to 2019 despite the coronavirus pandemic. The geotechnical specialist contractor said business has been stronger than anticipated in the second half of the year to date, particularly in North America. The board declared an interim dividend of 12.6 pence, flat on the year.

Macfarlane Group
Packaging group Macfarlane announced sales revenue and profit before tax for the second half of the year to date is ahead of the corresponding period in 2019. The board says full year profit before tax will be broadly in line with last year. Sales revenue in the four months to 31 October was better than expected and has grown by 4% compared to the same period last year. This represents a strong recovery from Q2 when sales decreased by 5.2% due to the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown. 

Mitie Group
British outsourcing firm Mitie Group on Thursday posted a 35% fall in first-half profit and scrapped its interim dividend, despite cost cuts as it won fewer contracts from its aviation and financial clients during the COVID-19 pandemic. Operating profit for the six months ended 30 September fell to £21.5 million from £33 million a year earlier, while total revenue declined 9.8%, the company said. Mitie provides a range of engineering, security cleaning and care services. 

Norwegian Airlines
Budget airline Norwegian has filed for bankruptcy protection as it scrambles to secure a rescue deal. The long-haul carrier is seeking to restructure debts, sell planes and find new funding after it was devastated by a COVID collapse in air travel. Norwegian – which has spent almost a decade battling to establish itself as a cheap alternative for transatlantic travel – elected to file court proceedings in Ireland as its aircraft are held in the country. 

Consumer & Retail

The world’s second largest cinema chain Cineworld is considering slashing rents and permanently closing UK cinemas after lockdown restrictions and a lack of blockbuster films caused business to collapse. The chain is looking at a “company voluntary arrangement”, an insolvency process used to cut costs, as part of discussions with lenders to gain access to capital to see it through until big movie releases return in the spring, according to three sources close to the negotiations. 

Running a department store chain in today’s era of online shopping is no mean feat, even for the most seasoned of retail executives. But to take charge of one in the middle of a pandemic when nationwide restrictions have forced the closure of all non-essential retail is an altogether different challenge. This was the reality facing John Edgar in April when he was appointed to helm the historic department store group Fenwick, just weeks after the UK was plunged into lockdown. 

Headlam Group
Headlam Group forecasted an underlying pretax profit of between £14 million and £16 million for 2020, materially ahead of current market expectations of a break-even performance. The London-listed floorcoverings distributor said that its performance has recovered to pre-coronavirus levels in the second half of the year, with November revenue currently ahead of 2019 despite the restrictions in the UK. 

Royal Mail

Royal Mail has reported a significant fall in profit for the first half of fiscal 2021 but raised its full-year revenue guidance. The postal service and courier company said that for the six months ended 27 September its pretax profit was £17 million, compared with £173 million for the first half of fiscal 2020. Adjusted operating profit – the company’s preferred metric – was £37 million compared with £165 million in the year-earlier period. 

Financials & Real Estate 

Close Brothers
Close Brothers Group announced this morning that it has performed well in the first quarter of fiscal 2021, noting that it continues to build on the positive momentum it saw in the last months of the previous calendar year despite the coronavirus pandemic. The financial-services company said it benefitted from strong new business volumes in banking, thanks to increased consumer activity, as well as from continued net inflows in the asset-management division and high trading volumes in the market maker Winterflood. 

CMC Markets
CMC Markets has reported a record trading performance for the first half of fiscal 2021, with net operating income and pretax profit rising significantly in the period, and noted that it’s investing in technology for further growth. The online trading platform posted a pretax profit of £141.1 million for the six months ended 30 September, compared with £30.1 million for the same period a year earlier, “demonstrating strong operating leverage.” Net operating income increased to £230.9 million from £102.3 million. 

Euromoney Institutional Investor
The UK provider of business-to-business information has reported that profit for fiscal 2020 fell after the coronavirus pandemic hit its events business, leading it to nearly halve its final dividend. Euromoney Institutional Investor made a pretax profit for the year to 30 September of £32.9 million, compared with £82.9 million for the prior year. On an adjusted basis, pretax profit was down 45% at £57.4 million. Full-year revenue fell to £335.3 million from £401.7 million in fiscal 2019.

The property-investment company has announced a 16% fall in pretax profit for fiscal 2020 but raised its dividend on growing rental income. Grainger said that for the year ended 30 September, its pretax profit was £110.8 million, compared with £131.3 million in fiscal 2019. The company said this reflected lower levels of valuation uplift on investment assets and lower development profits. The company said net rental income for the year was up 16% to £73.6 million, and that underlying like-for-like rental growth came to 3% for the year.

Investec returned to the dividend list despite a more than halved net profit in the first half of fiscal 2021. The London and Johannesburg-listed financial services company said it expects the second half performance to be ahead of the first, with improving revenue trends as client activity levels improve and liability repricing boosts net interest income. Net profit for the half-year ended 30 September was £108.8 million, compared with £256.2 million for the same period last year. 

Lloyd’s of London
The chairman of the Lloyd’s of London insurance market has said that global insurance losses from the COVID-19 pandemic this year will be higher than estimated previously. Bruce Carnegie-Brown told a Reuters insurance conference that pandemic-induced losses would be similar to 2017, when Atlantic hurricanes, above, added to a catastrophe bill of $144 billion – the highest on record, according to Swiss Re, the insurer. 

LondonMetric Property
LondonMetric Property said this morning that it swung to a profit for the first half of fiscal 2021 and revenue rose despite the coronavirus pandemic, as it declared an increased dividend. The UK real estate investment trust said that for the six months ended 30 September, its pretax profit was £85.4 million, compared with a loss of £10.7 million for the first half of fiscal 2020. The swing was based on a rise in property revaluations and fewer impairments. 


CBI steps up demands for detailed lockdown strategy – The Times

Sunak faces worst hit to UK finances since second world war – Financial Times