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Florida blocks wealthy vaccine tourists after anger from elderly residents

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Florida blocks wealthy vaccine tourists after anger from elderly residents 1

By Zachary Fagenson

MIAMI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – As millions of elderly Floridians scramble to register for a limited but growing supply of COVID-19 vaccines, state officials are clamping down on so-called vaccine tourism by limiting doses to only the state’s part- and full-time residents.

Shirley Hicks, 70, a retired teacher from the state’s west coast, spent three weeks glued to her computer to find a dose for her husband Michael, 80, after Florida became one of the first states allowing vaccines for those aged 65 or older.

But with no residency requirements for vaccinations, Florida residents have watched as wealthy tourists from New York to Canada to Argentina to India have joined the rush for a jab.

Hicks said it was hard to bear this influx of vaccine tourists when she had to wake up before dawn day-after-day to try to secure an appointment through Publix Super Markets, Inc., the state’s largest grocer recruited for the vaccination effort.

“It makes me sad, it makes me angry,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Finally this week she secured an appointment for her husband to receive the vaccine on Feb. 8.

But with nearly 800,000 of the state’s 4.4 million 65-and-older residents living at or below the poverty line, there is a growing concern that wealthier tourists could crowd out the most at risk members in a system struggling to keep up with demand.

Since the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in the United States more than 10 months ago the poor and the elderly have borne the brunt of the pandemic, which has killed more than 2 million worldwide and more than 400,000 in the United States.

FROM ARGENTINA TO INDIA

Lobbying group LeadingAge Florida represents more than 500 properties that house more than 80,000 senior residents.

“Part of those numbers are seniors that live in HUD-sponsored (Department of Housing) and affordable housing communities,” said communications director Nick Van Der Linden.

“Part of our priority since the beginning of 2020 was to work with state agencies to let them know and make them aware that it’s not just longterm care facilities, that there is a large number of low income seniors and we want to make sure they do not get overlooked.”

As of Thursday more than 1.3 million doses of vaccine had been distributed, according to the state’s health department.

Since the start of January, when the vaccine first became available, the state has prioritized its senior population, which accounts for one-fifth of 21 million residents.

The state’s move to prioritize its elderly helped it secure more of the vaccine, and faster, than other states but an unintentional come-one come-all policy attracted visitors from around the country and the globe, desperate for the jab.

Earlier this month Argentine television personality Yanina Latorre posted a video on Instagram of her mother receiving a dose of the vaccine at a Miami drive-through center after she said fans were able to help her make the arrangement.

Former Time Warner CEO and Chairman Richard Parsons said during a CNBC interview that he flew from New York to the so-called sunshine state of Florida after securing a vaccine appointment. Parsons is also the former chairman of Citibank.

Last month, ahead of the vaccine’s release, an Indian travel agency that deals with business travelers started to promote vaccine tourism packages.

VACCINE PACKAGES

Nimesh Shah, head of B2B division of Gems Tour and Travel, said the company had registered more than 5,000 people who wanted to travel to the United States for the vaccine and had valid U.S. visas.

Canadian travel insurance broker Martin Firestone, who runs Travel Secure Inc. in Toronto, said the pandemic had halted the annual southerly exodus of elderly Canadians – known as snowbirds – to warmer climes, until Florida began vaccinations.

“My people are going for the vaccine, but they’re going to stay the season,” Firestone told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“I hear they’re not having much of a problem getting them, which is so contradictory to what you’re reading about the line-ups and the problems Florida residents are having.”

On Thursday Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees released a notice specifying that only full-time or season residents able to show proof of such would be eligible to receive the vaccine.

“What we don’t want is tourists, foreigners. We want to put seniors first,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told reporters this week. “You got to live here, you know, either full-time or at least part-time.”

Much of the confusion and disarray stems from communication issues between the recently departed Trump administration, the states and municipalities tasked with distributing the vaccine, and the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.

The latter has for months offered guidance to help determine which segments of the population are most at risk and should be first in line for the vaccine, said Harald Schmidt, a professor in the medical ethics department at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

However ensuring those who are most at risk are actually able to get the vaccine has, is, and will continue to be a complex problem that relies on a combination of political and bureaucratic coordination and personal responsibility.

“It would’ve been more helpful if we had clarity, a national vaccination plan,” Schmidt said.

“Everybody who is exploiting loopholes needs to be clear: If you jump the line and you could safely wait a couple of months chances are you’re depriving someone who needs that vaccine.”

(Reporting by Zach Fagenson, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith @BeeGoldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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Battling Covid collateral damage, Renault says 2021 will be volatile

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Battling Covid collateral damage, Renault says 2021 will be volatile 2

By Gilles Guillaume

PARIS (Reuters) – Renault said on Friday it is still fighting the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including a shortage of semiconductor chips, that could make for another rough year for the French carmaker.

Renault reported an 8 billion euro ($9.7 billion) loss for 2020 which, combined with gloomy take on the market, sent its shares down more than 5% in late morning trading.

“We are in the midst of a battle to try to manage a difficult year in terms of supply chains, of components,” Chief Executive Luca de Meo told reporters. “This is all the collateral damage of the Covid pandemic… we will have a fairly volatile year.”

De Meo, who took over last July, is looking at ways to boost profitability and sales at Renault while pushing ahead with cost cuts. There were early signs of improving momentum as margins inched up in the second half of 2020.

The group gave no financial guidance for this year, although it said it might reach a target of achieving 2 billion euros in costs cuts by 2023 ahead of time, possibly by December.

Executives said they were confident the carmaker could be profitable in the second half of 2021, but that they lacked sufficient market visibility to provide a forecast.

Renault struck a cautious note, saying it was focused on its recovery but warned orders had faltered in early 2021 as pandemic restrictions continued in some countries.

The group is facing new challenges as the European Union tightens emissions regulations and after rivals PSA and Fiat Chrysler joined forces to create Stellantis, the world’s fourth-biggest automaker.

The auto industry endured a tough 2020 but a swift rebound in premium car sales in China helped companies such as Volkswagen and Daimler to weather the storm.

Auto companies globally have since been hit by a shortage of semiconductors that has forced production cuts worldwide.

“The beginning of the year has shown some signs of weakness,” De Meo told analysts, but added the chip shortage should be resolved by the second half of 2021. “We have taken the necessary measures to anticipate and overcome challenges.”

Renault estimated the chip shortage could reduce its production by about 100,000 vehicles this year.

SHARP HIT

The group was already loss-making in 2019, but took a sharp hit in 2020 during lockdowns to fight the pandemic, which also hurt its Japanese partner Nissan.

Analysts polled by Refinitiv had expected a 7.4 billion euro loss for 2020. The group posted negative free cash flow for 2020.

The 2018 arrest of Carlos Ghosn, who formerly lead the alliance between Renault and Nissan, plunged the automakers into turmoil.

In a further sign that the companies have been working to repair the alliance, De Meo told journalists that Renault and Nissan will announce new joint products together in the coming weeks or months.

Renault has begun to raise prices on some car models, and group operating profit, which was negative for 2020 as a whole, improved in the last six months of the year, reaching 866 million euros or 3.5% of revenue.

Analysts at Jefferies said the operating performance was better than expected. Sales were still falling in the second half, but less sharply.

Renault is slashing jobs and trimming its range of cars, allowing it to slice spending in areas like research and development as it focuses on redressing its finances. It is also pivoting more towards electric cars as part of its revamp.

It was already struggling more than some rivals with sliding sales before the pandemic, after years of a vast expansion drive it is now trying to rein in, focusing on profitable markets.

De Meo told journalists on Friday that the French carmaker will make three new higher-margin models at its Palencia plant in Spain, where manufacturing costs are lower, between 2022 and 2024.

($1 = 0.8269 euros)

(Reporting by Gilles Guillaume and Sarah White in Paris, Nick Carey in London; Editing by Christopher Cushing, David Evans and Jan Harvey)

 

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UK delays review of business rates tax until autumn

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UK delays review of business rates tax until autumn 3

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s finance ministry said it would delay publication of its review of business rates – a tax paid by companies based on the value of the property they occupy – until the autumn when the economic outlook should be clearer.

Many companies are demanding reductions in their business rates to help them compete with online retailers.

“Due to the ongoing and wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic and economic uncertainty, the government said the review’s final report would be released later in the year when there is more clarity on the long-term state of the economy and the public finances,” the ministry said.

Finance minister Rishi Sunak has granted a temporary business rates exemption to companies in the retail, hospitality, and leisure sectors, costing over 10 billion pounds ($14 billion). Sunak is due to announce his next round of support measures for the economy on March 3.

($1 = 0.7152 pounds)

(Writing by William Schomberg, editing by David Milliken)

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Discounter Pepco has all of Europe in its sights

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Discounter Pepco has all of Europe in its sights 4

By James Davey

LONDON (Reuters) – Pepco Group, which owns British discount retailer Poundland, has targeted 400 store openings across Europe in its 2020-21 financial year as it expands its PEPCO brand beyond central and eastern Europe, its boss said on Friday.

The group opened a net 327 new stores in its 2019-20 year, taking the total to 3,021 in 15 countries. The PEPCO brand entered western Europe for the first time with openings in Italy and it plans its first foray into Spain in April or May.

Chief Executive Andy Bond said its five stores in Italy have traded “super well” so far.

“That’s given us a lot of confidence that we can now start building PEPCO into western Europe and that expands our market opportunity from roughly 100 million people (in central and eastern Europe) to roughly 500 million people,” he told Reuters.

To further illustrate the brand’s potential he noted that the group has more than 1,000 PEPCO shops in Poland, which has a significantly smaller population and gross domestic product than Italy or Spain.

The company, which also owns the Dealz brand in Europe but does not trade online, has already opened more than 100 of the targeted 400 new stores this financial year.

Pepco Group is part of South African conglomerate Steinhoff, which is still battling the fallout of a 2017 accounting scandal.

Since 2019 Steinhoff and its creditors have been evaluating a range of strategic options for Pepco Group, including a potential public listing, private equity sale or trade sale.

That process was delayed by the pandemic, but Steinhoff said last month that it had resumed.

“The business will be up for sale at the right time. It’s a case of when, rather than if,” said Bond, a former boss of British supermarket chain Asda.

Pepco Group on Friday reported a 31% drop in full-year core earnings, citing temporary coronavirus-related store closures.

Underlying earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) were 229 million euros ($277 million) for the year to Sept. 30, against 331 million euros the previous year.

Sales rose 3% to 3.5 billion euros, reflecting new store openings.

($1 = 0.8279 euros)

(Reporting by James Davey; Editing by David Goodman)

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