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The Briefing

AIKEN Weekly Digest – 22nd January

AIKEN Weekly Digest – 22nd January Banner

by Aiken PR


A weekly round–up of the latest news relating to Covid–19 and Brexit, and the issues affecting our clients

The Brexit bite continued to squeeze while the announcement that Covid–19 restrictions in Northern Ireland would be extended was greeted with a collective shrug of the shoulders. NI, far from being alone, is joined by England, already partaking in its own extended lockdown running until at least 31 March, while Scotland and Wales seem unlikely not to extend their lockdowns when they reach their respective planned ends in mid–February and end of January. Meanwhile, ROI is facing a similar timeline to that in England, with any limited easing until mid–March at the earliest.

On Thursday, the Executive announced that the current restrictions, which have been in place since 26 December, would be extended to 5 March. Ministers were also warned, however, that restrictions may have to remain in place until after the Easter holidays. As if to dampen expectations further, Robin Swann, said it would be unrealistic to expect all lockdown restrictions to be lifted on 5 March. Though the reproduction rate of the virus has dropped further, sitting somewhere between 0.65–0.85, the health system is struggling to keep up with demand. The equivalent reproduction rate in hospitals is higher between 1–1.2, while in ICUs in goes higher to 1.3. 

Though the incidence rate is dropping rapidly, a similar scenario prior to Christmas means we can consider ourselves relatively well informed of how quickly that can change. The pressure on the system remains high and the accepted wisdom amongst many governments locally and across the world seems to be predicated on a successful roll out of the vaccine. In the meantime, sustaining the health system is an overwhelming priority. Accordingly, we saw on Wednesday it was announced more than 100 medically–trained military personnel will be deployed in Northern Ireland to help staff deal with Covid–19 pressures, following a request by the Health Minister. Sinn Féin MLA Pat Sheehan suggested the support equated to “slamming the dead cat down on the table to deflect attention away from the inadequacies in the health department at the minute.” Though the comments were criticised and rejected by Swann and Arlene Foster, the deputy First Minister was unable to comment because she had not seen them while she was in the Executive meeting. Michelle O’Neill added the priority of her party has “always been to save lives” and would “never rule out anything that actually supports the health service”.

Businesses continue to feel their way through the Brexit quagmire with no clarity on what will happen following the 3–month waiver on completing new customs processes expires. Research completed last year showed that consumers struggled to grasp some of the more speculative impacts of Brexit. The news that Amazon has told its marketplace sellers that parcels going from GB to Northern Ireland will need a customs declaration from April, raising the prospect that this could lead to increased delivery charges for Northern Ireland customers, should help bring a reality to what was previously slightly opaque. Elsewhere, James Barnes, chair of the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA), said: “Plant health regulations mean GB businesses now face inspections at up to four separate points in the supply chain journey, adding time and expense into the process. He suggested it was “causing some businesses to reconsider their trade with NI.” The UK’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs said “overall” businesses were “adjusting well to the new rules”. No statistics or benchmarking was provided for the assessment. 

Leo Varadkar’s difficulties continue as Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty has said the Tánaiste’s defence of his “leaking” of a confidential document almost two years ago now lies in tatters. Speaking in the Dáil yesterday, Doherty said correspondence released under Freedom of Information shows that former health minister Simon Harris, who was responsible for the negotiations, was unable to obtain the document due to its sensitivity despite Varadkar arguing in his initial defence that the information was in the public domain. For “Leo the Leak”, or Tánaiste to you and me, the scandal continues to limp on. While the questions continue to go unanswered, the issue will remain a stick with which Sinn Féin will continue to beat the former Taoiseach.