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UK banks step up support to coronavirus-hit customers

By Sinead Cruise and Iain Withers
FILE PHOTO: A woman looks at her phone as she walks past a branch of Lloyds bank in London, Britain

By Sinead Cruise and Iain Withers

LONDON (Reuters) - Three of Britain's biggest banks, RBS <RBS.L>, Lloyds <LLOY.L> and Barclays <BARC.L>, are offering repayment holidays on loans to customers affected by the coronavirus outbreak as it spreads in the country.

State-backed RBS said on Tuesday that affected borrowers would be able to defer repayments on mortgages and other loans by up to three months, as part of its policy of supporting customers who suffer financial hardship from unexpected events.

The bank will also waive early closure charges on fixed savings accounts and offer refunds on credit card cash advance fees so customers can access cash without penalty.

NatWest, part of RBS, has already announced measures to help small firms suffering cash flow or supply chain problems due to the health crisis.

RBS rivals Lloyds and Barclays also announced support packages for business customers on Tuesday.

Britain's biggest domestic lender Lloyds said it was offering relief on fees and loan repayments to some small firms hit by the virus.

Lloyds said it would offer 2 billion pounds ($2.6 billion) of finance with no fees to affected small firms that have a turnover of up to 25 million pounds. The funding is part of its expected 18 billion pounds of business lending this year.

Barclays said it was contacting business customers affected by coronavirus to offer them 12-month capital repayment holidays on existing loans of more than 25,000 pounds, as part of a package of measures to support companies hit by the outbreak.

None of the three banks defined exactly how customers would have to be affected by the virus to receive help. There have been 321 cases and five deaths in Britain so far.

Lloyds itself has been disrupted, shutting a call centre in Northern Ireland that employs 1,000 people after a member of staff tested positive for the virus.

Some businesses have had to shut offices and ask employees to work from home, while cross-border supply chains have also been disrupted.

"The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) is encouraged to see firms acting proactively to protect consumers who may be adversely impacted by the Covid-19 (coronavirus) outbreak," an FCA spokesperson said in an email statement.

Analysts at Jefferies estimate that RBS and HSBC's <HSBA.L> loan books are most exposed to a potential spike in bad loans resulting from the spread of coronavirus, with Lloyds and Barclays least.

RBS's move to extend support to personal customers comes as Italy's deputy economy minister said payments on mortgages could be suspended across the country, where the most serious outbreak in Europe continues to unfold.

Lloyds said its managers had spoken to more than 10,000 small and medium-sized enterprises about the outbreak, but said the damage on businesses so far had been minimal.

It said any loan repayment holidays would be offered subject to individual agreements.

($1 = 0.7656 pounds)


(Reporting by Sinead Cruise and Iain Withers; Additional reporting by Roshan Abraham in Bengaluru; Editing by Susan Fenton/Mark Potter/Jane Merriman)