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Biden team receives Operation Warp Speed briefing after weeks of delays



WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden‘s transition team has been briefed on America’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told reporters Tuesday.

Azar said that on Monday evening Rear Adm. Erica Schwartz, the official leading the transition planning effort, briefed the Biden team on Operation Warp Speed, which aims to get a coronavirus vaccine to the public in record time.

“We are immediately getting them all of the pre-prepared transition briefing materials,” Azar said.

“We will ensure coordinated briefings with them to ensure they’re getting whatever information that they feel they need,” Azar said, adding that the “transition planning and execution will be professional, cooperative and collaborative.”

The Biden transition team did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

The move ends weeks of delays in the formal handover of power from President Donald Trump to the Biden administration in the wake of the U.S. presidential election. Trump has not conceded the election to Biden.

The U.S. is grappling with a dramatic resurgence of coronavirus cases as major holidays approach. Thus far, the nation has recorded at least 257,991 Covid-19 related deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

The Trump administration has been criticized as not doing enough to control the spread of the deadly disease.

Last week, Pfizer and its partner BioNTech applied for an emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for their Covid-19 vaccine. The FDA process is expected to take a few weeks, and an advisory committee meeting to review the vaccine has been scheduled for early December.

Pfizer announced on July 22 that the U.S. agreed to buy 100 million doses of its vaccine for up to $1.95 billion. The agreement, which is part of Operation Warp Speed, allows the U.S. to acquire an additional 500 million vaccine doses.

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A year of lockdowns can’t take the shine off Goldmans Sachs profits | Goldman Sachs




What is $900m to a Wall Street giant like Goldman Sachs? Relatively little, when it counts the drop in profits for a year of record-setting market swings and economic turmoil, all sparked by a pandemic.

The firm should regard itself as lucky to be poised for profits of about $7bn (£5bn) for the whole of 2020. That average analyst forecast, compiled by Refinitiv, is a mere 11% drop from the $7.9bn it made in 2019, a year when the phrase “Covid lockdown” had never been uttered.

The projected decline is smaller than the $2.8bn it put aside to cover a potential jump in defaults within the first nine months of the year alone, a number estimates suggest could rise to $3.1bn for the 12 months to December. Those provisions pale in comparison with those of European peers such as HSBC, which already put by $7.6bn to cover Covid-linked loan losses by the third quarter.

The bank’s results will emerge unscathed from the $2.9bn settlement it reached in October with global regulators and the US Department of Justice, over its alleged role in the 1MDB corruption scandal. The announcement came just months after Goldman agreed to pay $3.9bn to the Malaysian government, amid claims it allegedly turned a blind eye while $4.5bn was looted from the country’s sovereign wealth fund.

Goldman bosses, including chairman and chief executive David Solomon, will feel the pinch of a $31m cut to their combined 2020 pay over the scandal, but hefty provisions previously put aside for the 1MDB case will largely cover the settlements.

Goldman chief executive David Solomon
Goldman chief executive David Solomon may see his pay trimmed. Photograph: Mike Blake/Reuters

All this means Goldman’s full-year earnings – released on Tuesday – will make headlines for less scandalous reasons. For one, its fledgling consumer bank, Marcus, has made further headway as customers lucky enough to keep their jobs or benefit from government Covid support programmes spent less and saved more during lockdowns.

Marcus savings accounts were in such high demand in the UK – thanks to a pocket of cash-rich and interest-hungry savers – that in July it was forced to close to new British accounts to avoid breaching regulatory limits.

But the 150-year-old lender’s bread-and-butter services will have proved its saving grace in 2020. The asset management business, fixed income division, and investment bank – which earns fees for advising clients on deals and corporate fundraising – produced a near doubling of third-quarter profit to $3.6bn.

Those divisions have benefited from a recovery in merger and acquisition activity, which stalled at the start of the pandemic, and from US stock markets hitting fresh record highs in the latter half of 2020. It has given Credit Suisse a reason to be bullish on Goldman’s earnings, with that bank’s own analysts recently upgrading profit forecasts to $7.4bn.

If JP Morgan’s results last Friday are any indication, the market rebound could also help Goldman beat forecasts. Its Wall Street rival reported a 42% jump in profits to $12.1bn for the fourth quarter, leaving full-year profits down 20% at $29bn.

A strong performance could raise pay for Goldman traders, who are reportedly set to see 2020 bonuses rise 20% compared with 2019.

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Firms accused of putting workers’ lives at risk by bending lockdown trading rules | Health policy




Irresponsible firms are exploiting looser lockdown regulations to bring thousands of non-essential workers into sometimes busy workplaces, with little chance of enforcement action by the nation’s safety watchdog.

Analysis by the Observer shows that no enforcement notices have been served on companies by Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspectors for Covid safety breaches since the country went into the latest lockdown, despite being contacted 2,945 times about workplace safety issues between 6 and 14 January. Overall, just 0.1% of the nearly 97,000 Covid safety cases dealt with by the agency during the pandemic appear to have resulted in an improvement or prohibition safety notice, with not a single company prosecuted for Covid-related breaches of safety laws.

This comes as the latest Public Health England surveillance data suggests workplace infections surged as people returned to work in January. The number of coronavirus outbreaks in workplaces rose by almost 70% in the first week of the national lockdown, with 175 Covid case clusters reported in English workplaces, not including care homes, hospitals and schools. New polling carried out by the TUC shows that fewer than half of workers are in workplaces with Covid-secure risk assessments.

In the past week, the government has focused attention on the failure of some people to stick to social distancing rules, from the release of a video of police approaching an individual in a parked car to an advert warning that “grabbing a coffee can kill”. But experts and unions have warned that unsafe workplaces may be playing a bigger role in fuelling the pandemic.

“If the government is upping enforcement, ministers should start with employers who break Covid safety rules,” said TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady. She called for big increases in resources for the HSE to stop rogue employers getting away with putting staff at risk.

Non-essential shops are supposed to be shut and most workers are expected to work from home to reduce the transmission of the virus, but unlike the first national lockdown all businesses are allowed to provide click and collect services in England. This contrasts with Scotland, where non-essential retailers were on Saturday banned from allowing customers to pick up goods ordered online.

Shop assistant Mike Richards, who works in a luxury fashion store in the centre of Birmingham, was furloughed during the first national lockdown in March but ordered to come into work last week to make sales calls alongside his colleagues under the guise of click and collect. “We got an email out of the blue saying, ‘You’ve got to get back into the store to sell.’ This is a luxury fashion brand – how can it be essential?”

A deserted Bull Ring shopping centre in Birmingham earlier this month
A deserted Bull Ring shopping centre in Birmingham earlier this month. Unlike during the first national lockdown, all businesses are allowed to provide click and collect services in England. Photograph: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Richards (not his real name) had to travel by train into work and was told to call clients who had previously bought luxury handbags. “There were eight of us in the store that day. We were masked up but there was hardly any socially distancing,” he said. “Every single facet of what we’re doing could be done in the comfort of our own homes. But we’re being forced to go in. It’s an irresponsible act, for the sake of a little bit of profit for a multibillion-pound company.”

He added that staff had been given letters in case they were stopped by the police on the way to work. “It says, ‘We are carrying out duties of click and collect and home deliveries.’ Nowhere does it say, ‘This person is in the store selling’, which is what we are actually doing.”

Professor Susan Michie, who sits on one of the government’s Sage subcommittees, said people were being needlessly driven into workplaces amid a raging pandemic, which has pushed the NHS to the brink in many parts of the country. “Every day I get contacted by distraught people who are being forced into workplaces, which they feel are completely unsafe. They are having to choose between the risk of serious illness or death and losing their job – not to mention the risk of spreading the virus on the way to and from work.”

She added that click and collect services were providing transmission routes for Covid. “They should all be shut down unless absolutely essential,” said Michie.

As well as clamping down on click and collect abuses, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, also placed a legal obligation on employers to ensure people can work from home wherever possible. This contrasts with England, where businesses only have to facilitate working from home.

Administrator Sandra Jackson, who works for a small vehicle supplier in Essex, was ordered to come in last week, even though there has been an outbreak of coronavirus, with just over a third of the workforce testing positive in December and January.

“I worked from home for one day and then I got a message saying, ‘This isn’t working. We won’t allow you to work from home.’ I’m absolutely furious about it.”

Tradespeople in England are still allowed to carry out all types of work in people’s homes. Electrician Stuart Collins has been ordered to install smart meters in multiple homes every day. “If people had lost supply or if it was a new connection, I would have no issue whatsoever,” he said. “But exchanging existing meters for smart meters is not essential. All we are doing is assisting this virus to spread. They are putting financial gain ahead of people’s lives.”

Professor Stephen Reicher, who advises both the UK and Scottish government, called on UK ministers to follow Sturgeon’s lead. “People have got to have the right to work at home if they can,” he said. “These are not wild and woolly ideas. They’re happening in Scotland. They could be very easily done. But the UK government seems to want to keep its head in the sand.”

Michie said more businesses were being allowed trade in England and more workers were going into workplaces because the government’s lockdown rules were so broad that almost any businesses could claim to be essential. “The government has effectively handed responsibility to employers to say whether they are essential or not,” she said.

The HSE said it had scaled up its proactive work to check, support and advise businesses on public health guidance. It added that it had carried out more than 32,000 site visits during the pandemic. “Inspectors continue to be out and about, putting employers on the spot and checking that they are complying with health and safety law. Our role in contributing to the national response to reduce Covid-19 transmissions and support economic recovery has been widely recognised,” said a spokesperson.

A government spokesperson said: “The law is clear that people can only leave the home to work if they cannot reasonably work from home. We have worked with trade unions, businesses and medical experts to produce comprehensive Covid-secure guidance so that businesses permitted to remain open can do so in a way that is as safe as possible for workers and customers.”

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Democratic governors accuse Trump administration of misleading them about vaccine stockpile




Several Democratic governors are criticizing the Trump administration for apparently misleading public health officials about holding a stockpile of Covid-19 vaccines in reserve.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said on Tuesday that the government would begin releasing doses of vaccine that were being held in “physical reserve” to ensure enough supply for second doses.

Both federally approved vaccines, made by Pfizer and Moderna, are administered in two shots spaced several weeks apart.

The Washington Post reported on Friday that despite Azar’s comments, no such federal stockpile of vaccines exists. The newspaper, citing state and federal officials, said the Trump administration had already started shipping its available supply in December.

The Democratic state leaders say the lack of a federal reserve will upset plans to increase the speed and scope of their vaccination campaigns.

“Last night, I received disturbing news, confirmed to me directly by General Perna of Operation Warp Speed: States will not be receiving increased shipments of vaccines from the national stockpile next week, because there is no federal reserve of doses,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown wrote in a post on Twitter, referring to Army Gen. Gus Perna, the chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed.

“This is a deception on a national scale,” Brown added. “Oregon’s seniors, teachers, all of us, were depending on the promise of Oregon’s share of the federal reserve of vaccines being released to us.”

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, also took to the platform, saying that the administration “must answer immediately for this deception.”

“I’m shocked we were lied to and there is no national reserve,” Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, wrote on Twitter.

He said that the federal announcement about the stockpile release “led us to expect 210,000 doses next week” and that other governors had made similar plans.

“Now we find out we’ll only get 79,000 next week,” Polis wrote.

Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota, a Democrat, said at a press conference that “they were lying,” referring to the federal government.

Walz and Democratic Govs. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Tony Evers of Wisconsin said in a joint statement on Friday that “it has become abundantly clear that not only has the Trump administration botched the rollout of the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine, but also that the American people have been misled about these delays.”

The governors requested permission to purchase vaccines directly from manufacturers.

“Without additional supply or authorization to purchase directly, our states may be forced to cancel plans for public vaccination clinics in the coming weeks, which are expected to vaccinate tens of thousands. It’s time for the Trump administration to do the right thing and help us end this pandemic,” the governors wrote.

Azar responded to the governors in a thread on Twitter on Saturday, calling their claims “completely misleading” and a “debasement.”

“We had a stockpile of reserved second doses from December. We started releasing those second doses at the end of December so people could get their second doses. We progressively continued that release,” Azar wrote.

The HHS chief said that the announcement this week “was that we are releasing the remaining reserved second doses according to the established cadence—ensuring second doses would be available at the right interval—and that going forward we’d no longer have a reserve of second doses.”

“The effort of some governors to mislead the American people to distract from their own distribution failures is unfortunate,” Azar said, referencing data that showed that Michigan, Oregon and Wisconsin had yet to administer the bulk of the vaccines that had already been distributed to those states.

The Trump administration has sparred with Democratic state officials since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, at first over supplies of tests and other medical equipment and more recently over vaccine distribution.

President-elect Joe Biden, who will be inaugurated Wednesday, has pledged to elevate the role of the federal government in vaccine delivery. Biden has pledged to have 100 million doses of vaccine administered in his first 100 days in office.

To date, vaccination efforts have lagged far behind official predictions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 12 million doses have been administered. Health officials had hoped to get that number to 20 million by January.

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