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The Briefing

AIKEN Weekly Digest – 29th January

AIKEN Weekly Digest – 29th January Banner

by Aiken PR

29/01/2021

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

Another busy week has passed, with the global and European race to successfully vaccinate their populations continuing at pace. EU and UK relations have soured over the delivery schedules of vaccinations, while Northern Ireland has powered on with the development of its Programme for Government (PfG). Well, sort of. The Executive released the outcomes framework for the PfG on Sunday, a positive development, if most would prefer to see more concrete actions before noting a changed approach. The likelihood that a PfG might not emerge until next year’s election will have eroded any modicum of good faith the framework itself generated.

The parents of Northern Ireland have found themselves doubly frustrated as it was confirmed most pupils in Northern Ireland will not return to school until Monday 8 March at the earliest. First Minister Arlene Foster said the ongoing public health situation meant remote learning must continue. It may also be the case that only some year groups go back to school on 8 March, if a return then is possible. The Education Minister had previously been in favour of getting schools open as much as possible but appears to have moderated his position. YouGov polling previously found that ‘U–turns’ are less damaging than typically imagined, though that poll did not factor in home schooling.  

Further disruption, this time as a result of Brexit, was evident as reports emerged Amazon has stopped selling wines, beers and spirits to its Northern Ireland customers due to with new customs rules post–Brexit. The company is concerned that excise duty will now have to be paid twice on all shipments of alcohol which are sent from Great Britain across the Irish Sea. Though a government spokesperson sought to assure, saying: “These goods will not be taxed twice, and we will issue new guidance clarifying the position to ensure any remaining issues are addressed”, Amazon will need more before seeking to reverse any such decision. The issue is being worked on by the HMRC and Cabinet Office, but no solutions have yet to be forthcoming.

In ROI, NPHET has told the Government that it will become increasingly difficult to maintain the level of suppression of Covid–19 that has been achieved since the New Year. Dr Tony Holohan advised the Minister for Health that NPHET expects a large number of additional deaths from the virus in the coming weeks. The difficult picture is perhaps why murmurs have surfaced of a shift in strategy from living with the virus, to entirely suppressing it. This might become a greater feature of the political debate with the Taoiseach and Tánaiste seemingly favouring differing approaches to a reopening, the former favouring a much more conservative approach.

The international cooperative vaccination effort hit a snag this week as the EU criticised pharmaceuticals giant AstraZeneca after the business substantially scaled back its intended delivery timetable to the bloc. The dispute turned ugly after Germany pressed Brussels to block vaccines exports to the UK, something the EU duly threatened. However, the EU has pursued a strategy of solidarity amongst member states, after an initial breakaway by wealthier members and a fair amount of continued resentment, which has seen vaccines purchased at lower prices and with greater accountability on the vaccine manufacturers. Conversely, countries such as the UK have adopted a unique approach for the situation, paying a higher price for the vaccine, with lesser accountability though deploying them much more quickly.

Ultimately, they are separate strategies that deliver varied results at different times. Though Guntram Wolff, director of the Bruegel think tank in Brussels tweeted that the EU’s “stingy approach cost lives”, such a determination won’t be known for many months yet. In the moment, the concept of more unnecessary deaths is most emotive, the longer term economic impacts of these decisions could be more significant. Cheaper vaccines but more slowly delivered at the expense of a quicker escape from lockdown could be costly, although the trade–off is in reality far less apparent and side effect free. On a larger scale, the UK’s MHRA has potentially made the case that after Brexit, the UK is a more exciting place to do clinical trials, differently to the established norms in Europe and USA. Time will tell.

NI

Health

  • Northern Ireland has recorded another record weekly rise in Covid–19 related registered deaths since the pandemic began, the NI statistics agency has said. There were 182 deaths registered in Northern Ireland in the week up to 22 January. That brings the death toll recorded by Northern Ireland’s Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra) to 2,311.
  • Surgeons have suggested some unspent funding to tackle Covid–19 pressures in NI could be used to “get surgery going again”. Earlier this week it emerged that almost £300m in funding for the current financial year remains unspent by Stormont.
  • Health workers in Northern Ireland are to get a “special recognition” payment for their work during the pandemic. It is intended that all staff will receive a payment of £500, said Health Minister Robin Swann.


Vaccine

  • Another “significant supply” of the Oxford–AstraZeneca Covid–19 vaccine is to arrive in Northern Ireland next week, the health department has said.


Education

  • Most pupils in Northern Ireland will not return to school until Monday 8 March at the earliest, the Stormont Executive has agreed this week. First Minister Arlene Foster said the ongoing public health situation meant remote learning must continue.


Business Support

  • Less than a quarter of payments issued incorrectly through Stormont’s emergency Covid–19 support scheme have been returned so far. The £10,000 payment was sent automatically to any business in receipt of small business rates relief but some were found to be ineligible. By 6 January, 124 of 538 payments (23%) made in error had been reclaimed.


Employment Support

  • The number of people on furlough in NI rose by more than a third between October and December, according to the latest data from HMRC. On 31 October, 68,000 people were on furlough – that rose to 94,800 by the end of December.


Travel

  • The Irish government is tightening its Covid–19 travel rules and some of the changes will affect overseas passengers who then travel on to Northern Ireland.


Brexit

  • The government is facing fresh criticism over the Northern Ireland Protocol amid warnings it obstructs the “free movement” of the military. The Ulster Unionist Party has said that, under the protocol, the MoD must now give 15 days notice and fill out customs declaration forms before it moves equipment from GB to NI.
  • Police are monitoring “stress” and “growing discontent” within unionist communities over the Irish Sea border. Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan told MPs the health pandemic may be “moderating people’s behaviour in terms of the desire to protest”.


Economy

  • The highest number of proposed redundancies in NI since records began was recorded in 2020, official figures have confirmed. NI firms proposed 11,000 over the year, according to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra).


Energy

  • Northern Ireland electricity supplier, SSE, is to increase prices by 3.9% from 1 March. The firm said the rise reflected increased costs from the network provider and the market operator.


Politics

  • DUP leader Arlene Foster has issued a statement sharply critical of the PSNI over its handling of republican funerals during the Covid–19 pandemic.


Arts

  • A decision on how £7.75m of emergency funding for arts and entertainment organisations will be spent has been delayed. The emergency funding is part of a wider £29m package of support for the cultural sector agreed by the Stormont Executive. But demand for the funding has been far in excess of the money available.

ROI


Health

  • The reproduction number of Covid–19 in Ireland has reduced to between 0.4 and 0.7, the NPHET briefing has heard this week.
  • A public health expert has said there are “red herrings” in discussions about the deployment of a so–called Zero Covid strategy in Ireland. Dr Gabriel Scally, President of Epidemiology and Public Health at the Royal Society of Medicine, said the phrase ‘zero covid’ is not helpful because there will be cases of Covid–19 even if this strategy is adopted, but he said “the cases are so low that they can jump on them and stop them.”


Vaccine

  • Europe’s medicines regulator has recommended approving the AstraZeneca / Oxford University Covid–19 vaccine for people over the age of 18. It is the third vaccine to be cleared for use in the European Union.
  • Ireland is expected to receive 300,000 fewer doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine as a result of a shortfall in deliveries to the EU. Some 600,000 doses were due to be delivered by the end of March under the earlier deal struck between the pharmaceutical company and the European Union.


Employment Support

  • The Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme has cost the state over €2 billion so far in wage supports for businesses affected by the pandemic. Since the EWSS was launched in September to replace the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme, the Government has disbursed €1.744 billion in wage subsidies for 505,600 employees, with a further €303m in PRSI foregone due to the reduced PRSI rate on the payroll supports. 


Economy

  • The national debt stood at more than €219 billion at the end of last year, equivalent to €44,000 for every person in the country, according to a new report from the Department of Finance.


Public Finance

  • Savers amassed an extra €14.2 billion in deposit accounts last year, according to the latest figures from the Central Bank. Household deposits increased by €950m in December, over four times the €212m saved in December 2019. 


Housing

  • The value of mortgage approvals in 2020 exceeded €10 billion, despite a slump in lending in the early months of the pandemic. This is according to figures for the final quarter of 2020 and the full year from Banking and Payments Federation of Ireland.


Business Support

  • The Revenue Commissioners have paid out almost a quarter of a billion euro under the Covid–19 Restrictions Support Scheme to businesses impacted by the pandemic.


Travel

  • New figures from the Central Statistics Office show that overseas travel to and from Ireland in December 2020 remained considerably lower than the same month in 2019 due to travel restrictions as the Covid–19 crisis continues around the world. The CSO said there were a total of 1,372,600 arrivals in the country and 1,383,800 departures in December – falls of 88% and 87.1% respectively


Retail

  • New figures from the Central Statistics Office show that the volume of retail sales increased by 14.3% in December when compared to November after the temporary reopening of large parts of the economy last month.