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Scammers fool Britons with investment firm clones, says trade body

FILE PHOTO: A bank employee counts pound notes at Kasikornbank in Bangkok, Thailand, October 12, 2010. REUTERS/Sukree Sukplang

LONDON (Reuters) – More than 200 British retail investors have lost nearly 10 million pounds ($13.4 million) in total to sophisticated investment scams since a government lockdown in March to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, a trade body said on Saturday.

Fraudsters cloned genuine investment management firms’ websites and documentation, and advertised fake products on sham price comparison websites and on social media, the Investment Association said.

Greater financial uncertainty and more time spent online have likely contributed to the increase in scams, industry sources say.

Losses amounted to 9.4 million pounds ($12.56 million) between March and mid-October, the IA said, based on information it got from member firms which had been cloned.

“In a year clouded in uncertainty, organised criminals have sought opportunity in misfortune by attempting to con investors out of their hard-earned savings,” Chris Cummings, chief executive of the Investment Association said.

The investment management industry was working closely with police and regulators to stop the scams, he added.

Britain’s Action Fraud warned earlier this month that total reported losses from all types of investment fraud came to 657 million pounds between September 2019 and September 2020, a rise of 28% from a year ago. Reports spiked between May and September, following Britain’s first national lockdown, the national fraud and cyber crime reporting centre added.

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In new blow to Trump, U.S. court rejects Pennsylvania election case

(Reuters) – A federal appeals court on Friday rejected an attempt by U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign to block President-elect Joe Biden from being declared the winner of Pennsylvania, dealing another significant setback to Trump’s bid to overturn the Nov. 3 election.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters after he participated in a Thanksgiving video teleconference with members of the military forces at the White House in Washington, U.S., November 26, 2020. REUTERS/Erin Scott

“Free, fair elections are the lifeblood of our democracy. Charges of unfairness are serious. But calling an election unfair does not make it so,” wrote Stephanos Bibas on behalf of a three-judge panel.

“Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here,” wrote Bibas, who was nominated by Trump.

“On to SCOTUS!” wrote Jenna Ellis, a Trump campaign attorney, on Twitter after the ruling, referring to a planned appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. “The activist judicial machinery in Pennsylvania continues to cover up the allegations of massive fraud.”

Pennsylvania certified Biden, who won the state by 80,000 votes, as its winner this week. Under Pennsylvania law, the candidate who wins the popular vote in the state gets all of the state’s 20 electoral votes.

Trump, a Republican, has refused to concede to his Democratic rival and continues to claim, without evidence, widespread voter fraud.

But as his legal challenges to the results fail, Trump said on Thursday he will leave the White House if the Electoral College votes for Biden when it meets on Dec. 14, the closest he has come to conceding the election.

On Monday, Trump’s administration cleared the way Biden to transition to the White House, giving him access to briefings and funding even as Trump vowed to continue fighting the election results.

Biden won the election 306-232 in electoral votes, including Pennsylvania’s 20. Even if Trump overturned the outcome in Pennsylvania, he would still need to reverse the result in at least two other states to remain as president.

TIME RUNNING OUT

While Trump and his supporters continue to wage legal battles, time is running out as states as states have until Dec. 8 to resolve election disputes.

Legal experts have said the cases have no chance of success and may be aimed at undermining confidence in the election. Polls have showed a majority of Republicans believe Trump won the election and many believe the election was tainted, despite a lack of evidence.

Soon after Friday’s ruling, Trump posted a video from Newsmax on Twitter about alleged voter fraud in Nevada.

The Trump campaign filed the Pennsylvania case earlier this month, saying that county election officials had treated mail-in ballots inconsistently and asking U.S. District Judge Matthew Brann to halt certification of the results.

Some counties had allowed voters to fix minor deficiencies with their ballots, such as a missing “secrecy envelope,” while others did not.

Brann dismissed the case on Nov. 21, saying the case was based on “strained legal arguments” and “speculative accusations.”

The Trump campaign said it appealed on the “narrow” question of whether Brann improperly refused to let it amend the lawsuit a second time.

The campaign wants to add back allegations it dropped from the case, including a claim that its due process rights were violated.

The appeals court said many of the claims by Trump campaign are matters of Pennsylvania law but noted the campaign already lost on those issues in state court.

“It never alleges that anyone treated the Trump campaign or Trump votes worse than it treated the Biden campaign or Biden votes,” said the opinion. “The campaign’s claims have no merit.”

The other judges on the panel, Brooks Smith and Michael Chagares, were nominated by George W. Bush, a Republican.

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Macron says images of police beating Black man shameful for France

PARIS (Reuters) – President Emmanuel Macron said on Friday that images showing Paris police beating up a Black music producer were shameful for France, and that government would have to find a way to restore public confidence in the force.

Prosecutors are investigating the violent arrest of Michel Zecler, who said he was also racially abused by the officers, after CCTV footage of the incident was released. The police watchdog is also investigating.

Four police officers were being held for questioning as part of the investigation, the Paris Prosecutor’s office said.

The beating inside the entrance of a building was captured on closed circuit television and mobile phone footage, which has circulated widely online and has made headlines around Europe.

“The images we have all seen of the aggression against Michel Zecler are unacceptable, they are shameful for all of us. France should never allow violence or brutality, no matter who it comes from. France should never let hate or racism prosper,” Macron said in a statement on his Facebook page.

He added that the police force should be exemplary. “Those whose job it is to apply the law should respect the law,” he said, adding that he has asked the government to urgently make proposals about how to restore confidence in the police.

The beating of Zecler risks inflaming racial tension, with allegations of repeated police brutality against Black and ethnic communities at the forefront of many people’s minds after the death of Black American George Floyd in Minneapolis in May sparked the “BlackLivesMatter” movement.

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron stands at attention after laying a wreath in front of the statue of Georges Clemenceau during Armistice Day commemorations marking the end of World war I in Paris, France, November 11, 2020. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann/Pool/File Photo

Dominique Sopo, President of anti-racism group “SOS Racisme”, told Reuters Zecler had been the target of a “racist attack”.

“For police officers to act that way they must have a tremendous feeling of impunity. This situation is a symptom of an impunity that has been going on for too long,” he added.

Paris police already faced criticism this week after social media photos and videos showed officers hitting protesters as they cleared out an illegal migrants campsite in a central Paris square.

The music producer told reporters he was set upon by police at his studio in Paris’s 17th arrondissement on Saturday.

He said he had been walking in the street without a face mask – against French COVID-19 health protocols – and, upon seeing a police car, went into his nearby studio to avoid being fined. However, he said, the police followed him inside and began to assault and racially abuse him.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told France 2 television on Thursday that the officers would be punished if the alleged wrongdoing was confirmed.

Zecler’s arrest came amid fierce debate in France over draft legislation that would limit journalists’ ability to document French police officers at work.

Around 3,500 people marched against the bill in the western city of Nantes, where police used tear gas and made several arrests. Many in the march also protested against police violence, some with their faces bandaged in support of Michel Zecler. A similar demonstration is planned in Paris on Saturday.

“BlackLivesMatter” protests broke out in Paris in June following the killing of George Floyd, who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck in the course of arresting him.

The outrage generated by Floyd’s death has resonated in France, in particular in deprived city suburbs where police often clash with youths from ethnic minority backgrounds.

The protests in Paris in June focused on unsolved cases of people dying during police operations, such as Adama Traore, who died in police detention near Paris in 2016.

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Ethiopian PM tells African envoys he will protect civilians in Tigray

ADDIS ABABA/NAIROBI (Reuters) – Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government will protect civilians in the northern region of Tigray, he told African peace envoys on Friday, a day after he announced the military was beginning the “final phase” of an offensive there.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed meets with African Union (AU) envoys in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia November 27, 2020, in this picture obtained from social media. TWITTER/@PMETHIOPIA via REUTERS

But a statement issued after their meeting made no mention of talks with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) to end fighting that began on Nov. 4.

The government had given the TPLF until Wednesday to lay down their arms or face an assault on Mekelle, the regional capital of 500,000 people, raising fears among aid groups of extensive civilian casualties.

In a statement issued after Abiy met the African Union envoys – former presidents Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique and Kgalema Motlanthe of South Africa – the prime minister’s office said the government was committed to the “protection and security of civilians”.

The statement thanked the envoys for imparting their “wisdom, insights, and readiness to support in any way they are needed” and did not mention any plans for further discussions with them.

The envoys had been sent to Addis Ababa to help mediate in the conflict, something that Abiy had already made clear he did not want.

The prime minister, who won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize for ending a two-decade standoff with Eritrea, has said he will not talk to TPLF leaders until they are defeated or give up.

Thousands of people are already believed to have been killed following air strikes and ground fighting. The United Nations estimates 1.1 million Ethiopians will need aid as a result of the conflict.

The bloodshed has sent shockwaves through the Horn of Africa. More than 43,000 refugees have fled to Sudan. TPLF rockets have hit the capital of neighbouring Eritrea.

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Reuters was unable to reach the TPLF for comment on Friday morning, but two diplomats said fighting raged in several areas outside Mekelle. A resident of Mekelle said the city itself was quiet on Thursday night. The United Nations says 200 aid workers are in the city.

With phone and internet connections shut off to the region and access to the area tightly controlled, verifying claims by all sides has been impossible.

PAMPHLETS

Finance Minister Ahmed Shide said on Thursday the government was trying to make people in the city aware of the military operation.

“We have made the people of Mekelle to be aware of the operation by deploying military helicopters and dropping pamphlets in Tigrinya and also in Amharic so that they protect themselves against this,” he told France24.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said such efforts were not akin to protecting civilians from harm.

He also said on Twitter that “with evidence mounting of atrocities committed by both sides in Ethiopia’s Tigray province, it’s essential to send in international investigators now”.

Rights investigators and civilians fleeing the conflict say fighters from both sides, including civilian militias supporting more formal security forces, have carried out mass killings. Both the government and the TPLF deny their forces were involved.

Abiy’s office said on Thursday that authorities were opening a humanitarian access route, but the U.N. said it had no information on that and the region was blocked to aid groups.

Tigrayans, who make up about 6% of Ethiopia’s 115 million population, dominated the government until Abiy took power two years ago.

Abiy pledged to unite Ethiopians and introduce freedoms after years of state repression that filled jails with tens of thousands of political prisoners. His government also put senior Tigrayan officials on trial for crimes such as corruption, torture and murder. The region saw those trials as discrimination.

Abiy’s reforms created more political space but also lifted the lid on long-repressed tensions over land and resources. In September, before the Tigray hostilities began, the U.N. migration agency IOM said conflict had displaced more than 1.2 million Ethiopians around the country.

Abiy accuses Tigrayan leaders of starting the war by attacking federal troops at a base in Tigray three weeks ago. The TPLF say the attack was a pre-emptive strike.

Tigrayan forces have large stocks of military hardware and number up to 250,000 men, experts say, while the region has a history of guerrilla resistance.

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Factbox: The top contenders to run Biden's financial agencies

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democratic U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s team has tapped a mix of progressives and centrist policy experts, including former derivatives market regulator Gary Gensler, to work on a transition plan for financial industry oversight.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President-elect Joe Biden delivers a pre-Thanksgiving speech at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., November 25, 2020. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

CNBC reported on Wednesday that Gensler was also being considered for the job of Treasury deputy secretary, a role that would see him work closely with the heads of financial agencies.

Here is how staffing could shake out at some of the key financial regulators, according to nearly two dozen lobbyists, officials and policy experts in Democratic circles.

CONSUMER FINANCIAL PROTECTION BUREAU (CFPB)

The CFPB director is a critical role for progressives such as Senator Elizabeth Warren who believe the agency can help tackle wealth inequality and racial injustice. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June handed Biden the power to fire Republican President Donald Trump’s CFPB director, Kathy Kraninger, and many policy experts expect the former vice president to quickly remove her after he takes office on Jan. 20.

Potential candidates to replace Kraninger include Warren’s protégée, U.S. Representative Katie Porter; Federal Trade Commissioner Rohit Chopra; Bharat Ramamurti, Warren’s former aide who sits on a pandemic congressional oversight panel; and Patrice Ficklin, the CFPB’s fair lending director who has been at the agency since its inception in 2011.

Some lawyers argue that while Biden’s pick is being confirmed by the Senate, the law bars him from parachuting in his choice of acting director and requires him instead to appoint Kraninger’s current deputy as interim agency head.

If Biden’s team agrees with that interpretation, Thomas Pahl, a Republican political appointee who has previously served stints at the Federal Trade Commission, would be promoted to acting director.

SECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION (SEC)

Biden is also expected to quickly staff up the SEC, which under Chair Jay Clayton, a Trump appointee, has pursued many rule changes opposed by Democrats and investor advocates.

Clayton is stepping down at the end of the year, positioning senior Democratic SEC Commissioner Allison Lee as acting chair under Biden until a new chair is sworn in.

Progressives are keen on former Democratic SEC Commissioner Kara Stein to chair the agency, although Rob Jackson, also a former Democratic commissioner who currently teaches at New York University School of Law, is preferred by moderates.

Gensler is also a contender, as is Preet Bharara, the former U.S. Attorney in Manhattan who became a scourge of Wall Street wrongdoers before Trump fired him in 2017.

BANKING REGULATORS

There will be a handful of banking regulator roles to fill, with the first likely to be comptroller of the currency.

That’s because current Comptroller Brian Brooks is serving in an acting capacity, allowing Biden to replace him quickly. While Trump has said he plans to nominate Brooks for the role permanently, there is limited time to push his confirmation through the Senate before Biden takes office on Jan. 20.

Amy Friend, formerly senior deputy comptroller and chief counsel at the agency under former President Barack Obama, is seen as a leading candidate for the comptroller position.

Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) Chair Jelena McWilliams cannot be removed by Biden and has said she wants to serve out her term, which ends in 2023. But Biden can still tilt the agency’s five-seat board, which passes rules via majority vote, by quickly appointing the heads of the CFPB and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency who always hold seats on the FDIC board too. Obama-era holdover and former FDIC Chair Martin Gruenberg already has a seat.

If McWilliams resigns, Michael Barr, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School and former Obama administration Treasury official, is seen as a contender for that or another banking slot, as is Graham Steele, a director at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and former Federal Reserve staffer. Barr is advising the transition team.

COMMODITY FUTURES TRADING COMMISSION (CFTC)

Current Republican CFTC Chair Heath Tarbert is expected to resign his role as chair, putting senior Democratic Commissioner Rostin Behnam in line to be acting chair. But the sources said Dan Berkovitz, the other Democratic CFTC commissioner and formerly general counsel to Gensler when he led the agency, is the front-runner for the permanent role of chair.

FEDERAL HOUSING FINANCE AGENCY (FHFA)

The FHFA is led by libertarian Mark Calabria who has said he is committed to overhauling the country’s housing finance market before his term ends in 2024. He is unlikely to resign, the sources said, and cannot currently be fired. That could change, however, pending a Supreme Court challenge to the agency’s structure, which could find the director can be removed.

If so, Biden, for whom affordable housing is a key policy, is likely to replace him. Potential contenders for his job include Eric Stein, who was special adviser to Democratic FHFA Director Mel Watt from 2014 to 2019, and Diane Yentel, chief executive of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Stein is also advising Biden’s transition team.

All those named above, or their representatives, declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment, other than Ficklin. While Ficklin would not comment on whether she was in contention for a role, she said she would be honored to serve.

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Exclusive: Suspected North Korean hackers targeted COVID vaccine maker AstraZeneca – sources

LONDON (Reuters) – Suspected North Korean hackers have tried to break into the systems of British drugmaker AstraZeneca in recent weeks, two people with knowledge of the matter told Reuters, as the company races to deploy its vaccine for the COVID-19 virus.

FILE PHOTO: A test tube labeled with the vaccine is seen in front of AstraZeneca logo in this illustration taken, September 9, 2020. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic//File Photo

The hackers posed as recruiters on networking site LinkedIn and WhatsApp to approach AstraZeneca staff with fake job offers, the sources said. They then sent documents purporting to be job descriptions that were laced with malicious code designed to gain access to a victim’s computer.

The hacking attempts targeted a “broad set of people” including staff working on COVID-19 research, said one of the sources, but are not thought to have been successful.

The North Korean mission to the United Nations in Geneva did not respond to a request for comment. Pyongyang has previously denied carrying out cyberattacks. It has no direct line of contact for foreign media.

AstraZeneca, which has emerged as one of the top three COVID-19 vaccine developers, declined to comment.

The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss non-public information, said the tools and techniques used in the attacks showed they were part of an ongoing hacking campaign that U.S. officials and cybersecurity researchers have attributed to North Korea.

The campaign has previously focused on defence companies and media organisations but pivoted to COVID-related targets in recent weeks, according to three people who have investigated the attacks.

Cyberattacks against health bodies, vaccine scientists and drugmakers have soared during the COVID-19 pandemic as state-backed and criminal hacking groups scramble to obtain the latest research and information about the outbreak.

Western officials say any stolen information could be sold for profit, used to extort the victims, or give foreign governments a valuable strategic advantage as they fight to contain a disease that has killed 1.4 million people worldwide.

Microsoft said this month it had seen two North Korean hacking groups target vaccine developers in multiple countries, including by “sending messages with fabricated job descriptions.” Microsoft did not name any of the targeted organisations.

South Korean lawmakers said on Friday that the country’s intelligence agency had foiled some of those attempts.

Reuters has previously reported that hackers from Iran, China and Russia have attempted to break into leading drugmakers and even the World Health Organisation this year. Tehran, Beijing and Moscow have all denied the allegations.

Some of the accounts used in the attacks on AstraZeneca were registered to Russian email addresses, one of the sources said, in a possible attempt to mislead investigators.

North Korea has been blamed by U.S. prosecutors for some of the world’s most audacious and damaging cyberattacks, including the hack and leak of emails from Sony Pictures in 2014, the 2016 theft of $81 million from the Central Bank of Bangladesh, and unleashing the Wannacry ransomware virus in 2017.

Pyongyang has described the allegations as part of attempts by Washington to smear its image.

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European stocks set for fourth weekly gain but vaccine worries weigh

FILE PHOTO: The German share price index DAX graph is pictured at the stock exchange in Frankfurt, Germany, November 25, 2020. REUTERS/Staff

(Reuters) – European shares edged lower on Friday as investors exercised caution ahead of a barrage of economic data due later in the day, while doubts about the effectiveness of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine also hit sentiment.

The pan-European STOXX 600 dipped 0.1%, with travel and energy sectors among the biggest decliners in early trading. The benchmark index was, however, on course for a fourth consecutive weekly gain.

Shares of British drugmaker AstraZeneca dropped 0.6% as questions were raised about the results of its late-stage vaccine study, potentially hindering chances of the shot getting speedy U.S. and EU regulatory approvals.

AstraZeneca’s chief executive said the company is likely to run an additional global trial to assess the efficacy of the vaccine using a lower dose.

Germany’s blue-chip DAX was flat, as COVID-19 infections in the country surpassed the one million mark and the daily death toll hit a record.

Investors will focus on a survey by the European Commission on euro zone business climate, consumer confidence and economic sentiment data for all sectors due later in the day.

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Analysis: German stimulus fails to turn anxious savers into big spenders

BERLIN (Reuters) – German consumers remain gloomy ahead of the traditionally big-spending Christmas season and a temporary reduction in sales tax worth up to 20 billion euros has failed to get them into shops or online — even when companies have passed it on.

A man tries out a rowing machine in a showroom of U.S. gym equipment manufacturer WaterRower in Munich, Germany, November 26, 2020. REUTERS/Andreas Gebert

The six-month cut in value-added tax from 19% to 16% was the centrepiece of a 130 billion euro ($155 billion) stimulus package launched by Finance Minister Olaf Scholz in June to drag Europe’s biggest economy out of a pandemic-induced slump.

Those measures, including cash handouts for parents and incentives to buy “green” cars, helped fuel growth of 8.5% in July-September, a big rebound from the previous quarter’s unprecedented 9.8% plunge.

But households remain focused on savings while many firms have used the VAT relief to shore up their battered margins rather than lowering retail prices, data and interviews show.

“Even if I wanted to spend more on the things that I like such as travelling and going out, I simply can’t right now due to the lockdown,” said Berliner Philipp von Bremen, 42, who worked reduced hours in the film industry during the pandemic.

“So I’m definitely spending less than normally.”

HELP YOURSELVES

The German subsidiary of U.S. gym equipment manufacturer WaterRower is among companies that did not cut prices, instead adding giveaways such as free cleaning packs to purchasers of its home rowing machines.

“We didn’t pass on the VAT reduction through lower prices. That would have been too much administrative effort for six months,” said managing director Dominik Kuprecht.

WaterRower did well during the spring lockdown as gym closures lifted demand. But higher import tariffs put pressure on the balance sheet, which it used the VAT relief to help offset at least partly.

“We got pulled into the transatlantic trade dispute as the European Union decided to put U.S. manufactured trainers onto its list of countermeasures in the aircraft subsidy row,” Kuprecht said.

Slideshow ( 4 images )

Tariffs rose from 2.5% to 27.5%, forcing WaterRower to hike prices by up to 20%.

With other companies affected by the pandemic, especially in the hard-pressed services sector, also using the VAT cut to help themselves, Germany’s central bank has estimated that nearly 40% of the relief was not passed on to consumers.

And although job protection schemes and other measures have helped stabilise disposable incomes, private consumption remains below pre-crisis levels.

The net household saving rate was 13.5% in July-September, statistics office data shows, below the record 20.1% seen in the second quarter, but still unusually high. The savings rate was 9.2% in the third quarter last year.

“Private households remain cautious with their spending and squirrel away a larger part of their income than normally,” said Claus Michelsen, chief economist at the DIW institute.

On Thursday, the GfK institute said consumer morale deteriorated further heading into December amid new lockdown measures to curb the pandemic’s second wave.

Sebastian Dullien, head of the Macroeconomic Policy Institute (IMK), estimates that since the pandemic started consumers have put aside roughly 70 billion euros more than they did in the same period last year.

“As soon as the crisis is over, this money could flow into consumption and support the recovery in 2021,” Dullien added.

Scholz, who will be the centre-left Social Democrats’ candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor in the 2021 federal election, has resisted calls to extend the VAT cut.

He argues that a return to the regular rate on Jan. 1 will push consumers to splash out this year and pull forward purchases of larger items.

POSITIVE EFFECT

The 790 million euro incentive scheme for buyers of electric and hybrid cars has been more successful, and Merkel and Scholz agreed this month to extend it until 2025.

Since the stimulus package was announced, registrations of electric and hybrid cars have climbed from month to month, even while Germany’s overall car market has been shrinking. In October, they quadrupled from a year before to more than 48,000.

“The VAT cut had a positive effect, of course, but it’s not as effective as the increased buyers’ premium for e-cars,” said Eckehart Rotter, spokesman of the VDA automobile lobby group.

Asked to give a critical assessment of the stimulus package, Scholz told Reuters the measures were working well and that companies were passing on the tax reduction to consumers.

“Our crisis response has received top marks from the IMF,” Scholz said, adding that the Washington-based lender explicitly praised the elements of Berlin’s stimulus package meant to accelerate the shift towards a green economy.

“We are pushing ahead with decarbonisation, including in the transportation sector, because climate change is not taking a coronavirus break,” Scholz added.

He said the extended incentives to buy e-cars and additional funds to expand the network of charging stations would guarantee planning security for companies and secure sustainable jobs.

The abolition from January of an income tax surcharge for most employees, except high-earners — agreed by the government before the crisis — will meanwhile free up roughly 10 billion euros for additional spending, Scholz said.

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South Korea braces for bed shortages as coronavirus cases near nine-month high

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea reported more than 500 new coronavirus cases for the second consecutive day on Friday, a level not seen in nearly nine months, as a third wave of infections spreads nationwide and authorities scrambled to provide more hospital beds.

People wait for their bus at a bus stop amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Seoul, South Korea, November 26, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

The daily tally of 569 came a day after the numbers hit the highest level since March 6, when South Korea was reeling from the first major COVID-19 epidemic outside China.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun warned that daily infections could swell to 1,000 and bring a greater crisis including hospital bed shortages if social distancing measures and other restrictions failed to stop the contagion.

“The situation is extremely serious and acute, as all of the 17 metropolitan cities and provinces and especially all the 25 districts in Seoul are reporting new cases,” Chung told a meeting on COVID-19 responses.

The government reimposed strict social distancing rules on the capital Seoul and surrounding regions this week – restricting dining out, religious services and nightly entertainment. The move came only a month after similar restrictions were eased as a second wave of infections ebbed.

While South Korea’s early outbreaks emerged from a specific religious group or region, the latest sprang from a multitude of clusters in and around the capital Seoul and is now spreading across the country, making it harder to trace and contain.

Of the latest cases, 525 were domestically transmitted and more than 64% of those were from the Seoul metropolitan area, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.

The portion of new cases reported in the greater Seoul area has fallen steadily from about 85% early this month as the outbreak spread to other provinces such as South Gyeongsang and Gangwon. All 17 metropolitan cities and provinces reported new cases on Thursday for the first time in months.

Chung urged authorities to secure more hospital beds to prevent shortages. The health ministry said there were sufficient beds available for now, but there could be shortfalls in two to three weeks if cases continued to spike.

The earlier waves quickly depleted hospital facilities, with the number of remaining beds for critical cases in the greater Seoul area, a metropolis of 26 million people, once plunging to near single digits.

As of September, South Korea had about 500 intensive-care beds for its 52 million people. The government vowed to double the number by next year, including more than 110 this year.

The ratio is near the average of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, but in previous waves of infection many of those beds were used by less serious cases or patients with other ailments.

South Korea has reported total infections of 32,887, with 516 deaths.

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South Korea foils North Korea attempt to hack COVID-19 vaccine makers: media

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea’s intelligence agency foiled North Korean attempts to hack into South Korean companies developing coronavirus vaccines, the News1 agency reported on Friday, citing a member of the parliamentary intelligence committee.

Lawmaker Ha Tae-keung said after being briefed by the National Intelligence Service that the agency did not specify how many and which drugmakers were targeted but said there was no damage from the hacking attempts, News1 said.

Last week, Microsoft said hackers working for the Russian and North Korean governments have tried to break into the networks of seven pharmaceutical companies and vaccine researchers in South Korea, Canada, France, India and the United States.

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