Russian businesses prepare for fresh lockdowns as Covid-19 cases soar

Russian businesses are braced for a reimposition of lockdown measures after a surge in new coronavirus cases over the past week dashed hopes that the country had successfully contained the pandemic.

Russia has the world’s fourth-highest number of Covid-19 infections but government data had shown a steady decrease in new cases since they peaked in mid-May.

That decline had encouraged the Kremlin to lift almost all quarantine measures imposed in March in an effort to limit the damage to the country’s already struggling economy, but a sharp increase in new infections over the past fortnight has raised fears that a new lockdown will be necessary.

Moscow recorded more than 2,000 new cases on Sunday, almost double the number reported three days earlier, and the highest daily increase since early June. The country’s total number of new infections jumped to 7,867, the highest for three months.

“The first wave was bad but this next one is coming right now and it is going to be worse,” the chief executive of a Russian company that employs more than 15,000 people told the FT. “We learned a lot in March and April about how to control it . . . and we need to do the same now.”

In light of the rising infection rate, Sberbank, Russia’s biggest lender and one of its biggest employers, is to move half of its Moscow workforce to remote working, while X5, the country’s biggest food retailer, said it had ordered 90 per cent of its Moscow office employees to work from home.

Residents of the capital over 65 years of age and those with underlying health concerns have been requested to remain at home from Monday morning by the city’s mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, who warned of “dire consequences” from coronavirus overlapping with seasonal flu.

Mr Sobyanin, in a statement issued on Friday, also “earnestly recommend[ed]” that businesses based in the capital “transfer as many employees as possible to remote mode”. His office made the request directly in letters to more than 5,000 companies based in Moscow, according to state newswire RIA Novosti. Russia’s deputy energy minister said that the ministry was preparing to ask its employees to work remotely again.

“We all really do not want to return to the harsh restrictions of this spring,” Mr Sobyanin said. “Hopefully we can avoid this. But only if we take care of ourselves and people close to us.”

But any reimposition of widespread lockdown measures in Russia is politically sensitive, given president Vladimir Putin’s decision to lift the initial quarantine this summer, his heavy championing of a Russian-developed Covid-19 vaccine since and the Kremlin’s consistent denials that curbs on citizens or businesses would be redeployed.

Mr Putin made the controversial decision to lift national lockdown measures in order to conduct a national referendum in June on a new constitution that allows him to rule as president for an additional 12 years. Lifting the lockdown also allowed scores of regional elections to take place earlier this month.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday denied any knowledge of planned anti-coronavirus measures that would affect the country’s economy, and said Russia was in “much more control” than in the initial months of the pandemic, despite the recent surge in infections.

Russia has far lower death rates from the virus than other countries.  Moscow has denied  that its official data undercount the number of infections and fatalities from the pandemic.

The sharp increases in infections were announced on Sunday just hours before the start of the Russian Formula One Grand Prix, where organisers have claimed to have sold all 30,000 tickets — the largest spectator crowd for a sporting event in Russia since lockdowns were first imposed.

Despite spot checks on retailers and other customer-facing industries, and constant announcements on public transport to wear face masks and gloves, Moscow’s buses, metro trains and shopping centres are still busy with many taking no precautions.

A survey by the state-owned pollster VCIOM found that just 52 per cent of Russians have worn a face mask in response to the pandemic and 38 per cent had observed social-distancing rules.

Original source: Financial Times