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UK offices empty fast as Covid infection rates reach record high



British employers are warning of fast-rising staff absences during the latest coronavirus wave, which has taken Covid-19 infections to their highest ever level in the UK.

Company executives said infections have hit whole teams of workers as a version of the Omicron coronavirus variant known as BA. 2 spreads rapidly.

Staffline, which provides temporary workers across the UK, said cases of Covid had reached a high level for blue-collar jobs in January when the original Omicron variant took hold, but now white-collar positions in financial and professional services were being affected after people returned to the office.

In London, financial services executives reported that meetings were being cancelled at a high rate as people fell sick.

Coronavirus infections reached a record high across the UK in the week ending March 26, with 4.9mn Britons having Covid, according to the Office for National Statistics.

This was an increase of 15 per cent on the previous week. Infection levels eclipsed those recorded when Omicron swept the UK in early January, at which point 4.3mn Britons had Covid in one week.

Chart showing that the UK’s Covid infection rate is at its highest point of the pandemic

The record number of infections comes after the government ended coronavirus restrictions in England and rolled out its “living with Covid” strategy, which has brought an end to free tests.

Kara Steel, senior statistician for the ONS infection survey, said the rapid rise in infections was “fuelled” by the Omicron BA. 2 offshoot.

Make UK, the trade body which represents UK manufacturers, said Covid cases were now higher among its members than at any time since the start of the pandemic.

But it added this was not “throwing up the same critical number of absences as during the ‘pingdemic’ of last summer because employees are not required to self-isolate if they have no symptoms”. 

Chart showing that white collar professions and the wider service sector are now facing the most disruption from staff sickness and isolation

One executive at a Newport-based construction company said Covid was “spreading like wildfire . . . people are working as they need the money and reinfecting each other”.

Craig Beaumont, chief of external affairs at the Federation of Small Businesses, said one in seven UK businesses reported they were not fully trading as teams fell ill.

“Having brought more people back to the workplace, bosses are now increasingly worried at having more Covid-19 there, too,” he added. “In the face of such disruption, this is the wrong time for the government to withdraw free testing and downgrade safer workplace guidance.”

The government has told business lobby groups that there will be no rules on how companies treat staff with Covid.

However, the government is preparing to publish “principles for employers” to help companies come up with their own policies.

The latest government guidance for England says people with Covid symptoms should “try to stay at home and avoid contact with others . . . until they feel well enough to resume normal activities”.

Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, said the latest Covid wave posed a huge challenge to workforce resilience.

“It’s a challenge for how to keep your workforce together and not wipe out the whole office by someone coming in with an infection, as there’s no clear guidance on people coming to work with a runny nose who most likely have Covid,” he added.

Spector said the UK was likely to face “elevated staff absence rates” over the long term because of stubbornly high Covid transmission and the effects of long Covid.

From Saturday, the vaccine rollout has been opened up to more than 5mn children aged between 5 and 11 years old in England. Parents can now book an appointment online or take their children to a walk-in centre.

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Fiji fires police commissioner and end security deal with China



Police operate a security check point in the Fijian capital of Suva in December following general elections. The Pacific island nation has played an important regional role amid competition between China on the one side and Australia, New Zealand and the United States on the other.

Saeed Khan | Afp | Getty Images

Fiji’s president on Friday suspended the commissioner of police following a general election saw the first change in government in the Pacific island nation in 16 years, after the military earlier warned against “sweeping changes.”

President Ratu Wiliame Katonivere said Commissioner of Police Sitiveni Qiliho had been suspended on the advice of the Constitutional Offices Commission, “pending investigation and referral to and appointment of, a tribunal.”

The Supervisor of Elections Mohammed Saneem was also suspended by the commission, the statement said.

Qiliho declined to comment to local media because he said he will face a tribunal over his conduct. He was seen as being close to former prime minister Frank Bainimarama, who led Fiji for 16 years before a coalition of parties narrowly won December’s election and installed Sitiveni Rabuka as leader of the strategically important Pacific nation.

The day before a coalition agreement was struck, Qiliho and Bainimarama called on the military to maintain law and order because they said the hung election result had sparked ethnic tensions, a claim disputed by the coalition parties.

The Pacific island nation, which has a history of military coups, has been pivotal to the region’s response to competition between China and the United States, and struck a deal with Australia in October for greater defence cooperation.

No more China policing deal

On Thursday, Fiji Times reported that Rabuka said his government would end a police training and exchange agreement with China.

“Our system of democracy and justice systems are different so we will go back to those that have similar systems with us,” the prime minister was quoted as saying, referring to Australia and New Zealand.

The prime minister’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Republic of Fiji Military Forces Commander Major General Jone Kalouniwai earlier this month warned Rabuka’s government against making “sweeping changes,” and has insisted it abide by a 2013 constitution which gives the military a key role.

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Inventory glut and underused factories



Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger, with U.S. President Joe Biden (not pictured), announces the tech firm’s plan to build a $20 billion plant in Ohio, from the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus in Washington, January 21, 2022.

Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

Intel’s December earnings showed significant declines in the company’s sales, profit, gross margin, and outlook, both for the quarter and the full year.

Investors hated it, sending the stock over 9% lower in extended trading, despite the fact that Intel did not cut its dividend.

The earnings report, which was the eighth under CEO Pat Gelsinger’s leadership, shows a legendary technology company struggling with many factors outside of its control, including a deeply slumping PC market. It also highlights some of Intel’s current issues with weak demand for its current products and inefficient internal performance, and underscores how precarious the company’s financial health has become.

“Clearly, the financials aren’t what we would hoped,” Gelsinger told analysts.

In short: Intel had a difficult 2022, and 2023 is shaping up to be tough as well.

Here are some of the most concerning bits from Intel’s earnings report and analyst call:

Weak and uncertain guidance

Intel didn’t give full-year guidance for 2023, citing economic uncertainty.

But the data points for the current quarter suggest tough times. Intel guided for about $11 billion in sales in the March quarter, which would be a 40% year-over-year decline. Gross margin will be 34.1%, a huge decrease from the 55.2% in the same quarter in 2021, Gelsinger’s first at the helm.

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But the biggest issue for investors is that Intel guided to a 15 cent non-GAAP loss per share, a big decline for a company that a year ago was reporting $1.13 in profit per share. It would be the first loss per share since last summer, which was the first loss for the company in decades.

An inventory glut

Dropoff in gross margin

Underpinning all of this is that Intel’s gross margin continues to decline, hurting the company’s profitability. One issue is “factory load,” or how efficiently factories run around the clock. Intel said that its gross margin would be hit by 400 basis points, or 4 percentage points, because of factories running under load because of soft demand.

Ultimately, Intel forecasts a 34.1% gross margin in the current quarter — a far cry from the 51% to 53% goal the company set at last year’s investor day. The company says it’s working on it, and the margin could get back to Intel’s goal “in the medium-term” if demand recovers.

“We have a number of initiatives under way to improve gross margins and we’re well under way. When you look at the $3 billion reduction [in costs] that we talked about for 2023, 1 billion of that is in cost of sales and we’re well on our way to getting that billion dollars,” Gelsinger said.

The not-so-bad news: Dividend and self-driving

Long-term investors have always closely watched how the company balances the near-term need to placate shareholders with the massive capital spending needed to stay competitive in the semiconductor manufacturing business.

If Intel is cutting costs and still needing to invest in chip factories to power its turnaround, analysts say it may want to reconsider its dividend. Intel spent $6 billion on dividends in 2022, but did not cut its dividend on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the company said it wants to cut $3 billion in costs for 2023 and analysts believe it wants to spend around $20 billion in capital expenditures to build out its factories.

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Gelsinger was asked about this dynamic on Thursday.

“I’d just say the board, management, we take a very disciplined approach to the capital allocation strategy and we’re going to remain committed to being very prudent around how we allocate capital for the owners and we are committed to maintaining a competitive dividend,” Gelsinger replied.

There was at least one bright spot for Intel on Thursday.

Mobileye, its self-driving subsidiary that went public during the December quarter, reported earlier in the day, showing adjusted earnings per share of 27 cents and revenue growth of 59%, to $656 million. It also forecast strong 2023 revenue of between $2.19 billion and $2.28 billion. Shares rose nearly 6% during regular trading hours Thursday.

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China’s reopening will boost these retail names, Wells Fargo says



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