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The Briefing

AIKEN Weekly Digest – 26th February

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by Aiken PR

26/02/2021

Unionists unite and pathway–to–recovery delayed.

Possibly the best way to start the weekend is to note that as of today, approximately 35% of adults in Northern Ireland have now received their first dose of vaccine against Covid–19. Should you need a bigger pick me–up, do not fear, we can provide. A study by researchers from universities across Scotland and Public Health Scotland showed that four weeks after the first doses of the Pfizer BioNTech and Oxford AstraZeneca vaccines were administered the risk of hospitalisation from Covid–19 fell by up to 85% and 94% respectively. Though there is still plenty of road to travel, the work that has gone into the research, testing, production, supply and rollout of the various vaccines continues to amaze. 


Northern Ireland’s Unionists this week united behind a call to the Prime Minister demanding immediate action on the Northern Ireland protocol. In a letter signed by leading figures of Northern Ireland’s Unionist parties, and aligned with the legal action challenging the protocol, they call for “immediate action to settle a new arrangement for Northern Ireland, one which is consistent with the Act of Union 1800, the Northern lreland Act of 1998 and the Belfast Agreement”. As one trade policy expert noted on drily Twitter, the demand for action is directed at a PM and his Northern Ireland Secretary who deny the existence of a border, one which was negotiated by the PM himself and a pre–requisite of any trade dealings with the US. Though amusing, the point is an important one. The prospect of ditching the protocol entirely seems as distant now as it ever has been. The UK Government remains committed to negotiating a more effective implementation of the protocol, though Wednesday’s virtual joint committee meeting between Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove and European Commission vice–president Maros Sefcovic did not provide for such a breakthrough.

Still, the significance of the Unionist coalescence around a single cause may not be inconsequential. They have now found support in the form of the European Research Group, comprised of Brexit supporting Conservative MPs, which still yields influence in Westminster. In a 38–page report, the ERG concluded that the Northern Ireland Protocol “has had a profound and negative effect” and that the Government should trigger Article 16. Given the ERG were never supporters of the protocol and have always inclined wholeheartedly towards the most anti–EU of any given choice, this is far from ground breaking. Yet, it creates a headache for Johnson and Lord Frost, the new UK lead for protocol implementation, and provides further grist for the idea that UK and EU relations will become increasingly troubled as No.10 seeks to appease those riled by the protocol. Though Brussels may be exploring what can be done to ease trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, easements of the kind sought by Unionists and the ERG will not be forthcoming given they strike at the heart of the EU’s make–up. Accordingly, if the EU was to cede ground, No.10 would have to make more sizeable compromises involving aspects of sovereignty that it clung to dearly during the recent trade negotiations. While there are routes to easing friction between GB and NI, the appetite for the compromises involved seems to be lacking.

For dispirited sorts, this news may have been tempered by the Executive’s expected publication of the proposed pathway–to–recovery blueprint. Unfortunately, at this week’s press conference, ministers said they wanted to ensure they “got it right”, rather than prematurely publish the document. The plan had been expected on Monday 1 March. England, Scotland and ROI have all now published varying lookahead plans, with England possibly the most detailed and forward looking. ROI has instead focused on the return to schools while current public health restrictions will remain in place until 5 April. Given the differing approaches elsewhere, it’s clear to see how Northern Ireland’s blueprint could lead to internal wrangling and, in fact, it already has. The DUP has already called for the Executive to revisit the plan for the reopening of schools after news emerged England’s was to go further faster. However, Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride, said the medical evidence on which the initial decision had been arrived at had not changed. Joining the spat, Sammy Wilson compared Health Minister Robin Swann to “a poodle for an unaccountable chief medical officer”. Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said it was “disrespectful” and “disgraceful” while Swann said he considered himself “more of a Jack Russell”. As for the blueprint’s publication, it seems possible Monday will not be the day. When it does arrive, it is not expected to include indicative dates, but will set out criteria that must be met before restrictions on different sectors can be eased.

To finish, given we started on a positive note, we will end on one. Though next week’s Budget promises to be a mixed bag, with reports of a freeze on the lifetime allowance and income tax, as well as a scaling back of the Government’s emergency coronavirus loan schemes, the same reports suggest an extension of the furlough scheme is also likely. For the 106,200 workers in Northern Ireland on furlough, such a move will be very welcome indeed.

NI

Health

• There has been another fall in the weekly number of Covid–19–related deaths registered in Northern Ireland. The virus was mentioned on 78 death certificates in the week to 19 February, said the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra). That is a decrease of 21 on the previous week’s toll of 99.

• First Minister Arlene Foster has said she has “full confidence” in NI Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride. It comes after her party, the DUP, said health officials had been “overcautious” in recommending a phased return of NI schools.

• More than 323,000 people were still waiting for a first appointment with a consultant at the end of December 2020, according to the latest figures from the Department of Health.

• Three cases of the South Africa coronavirus variant have been detected in Northern Ireland, the Department of Health has confirmed. The department said transmission risk was low and that officials were trying to trace contacts linked to the cases.

Vaccine Rollout

• Covid–19 vaccination of residents and staff in care homes in Northern Ireland is complete, the Department of Health has announced. The department said uptake was high but “not everyone took the opportunity to receive the vaccine”.

• Belfast’s SSE Arena will be used as a mass vaccination centre for Northern Ireland’s adult population, Health Minister Robin Swann has confirmed. It is expected the arena will open in April as a facility for those aged 60 and under who have not already been vaccinated.

Education

• Pupils in Northern Ireland will get their AS, A–Level and GCSE results earlier in 2021. Education Minister Peter Weir said pupils would receive AS and A–level results on 10 August and GCSE results on 12 August.

Economy

• A £290m plan to help the NI economy recover from the impact of the Covid–19 pandemic has been unveiled. The 29–page document is wide–ranging with four key areas. They are skills, research and development, green recovery and investment, trade and exports. Economy Minister Diane Dodds said that as Northern Ireland moves slowly back to normality, “we must put all our efforts into restarting, repairing and rebuilding our economy”

• It also includes two initiatives announced last year – a high street voucher scheme to support “bricks and mortar” businesses which was delayed, and a “Holiday at Home” voucher scheme to boost the tourism sector.

• The first meeting of Northern Ireland’s high street task force has taken place this week. The body was announced in August and aims to explore ways to revitalise town and city centres.

Employment

• The number of people on furlough in Northern Ireland increased by almost 27,000 between the end of November and the end of January. There were 79,300 workers furloughed at the end of November, rising to 96,500 at the end of December and 106,200 at the end of January.

ROI

Health

• Health Service Executive chief Paul Reid has warned of this “difficult phase” where he said people want to get “out and about” more and he highlighted the risks of social interactions.

• Director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory Dr Cillian de Gascun has said one case of the B1525 variant, which was first identified in December in the UK and Nigeria, has been confirmed in Ireland. He said the reason they are potentially concerned about B1525 is because it possesses the E484K amino acid change, which has been associated with reduced response to neutralising antibodies.

European Commission

• EU leaders, including Taoiseach Micheál Martin, met virtually today under pressure to speed up Europe’s coronavirus vaccine roll–out and facing demands from some capitals for a continent–wide vaccine passport.

Supports

• The Government has said that measures to support business, jobs and employment are to remain in place until the end of June. It follows the announcement that Covid level 5 restrictions are to remain in place across a number of sectors for weeks and in some cases months.

Economy

• Many small businesses will be forced to close and cut jobs if the Government does not quickly launch the Covid Business Aid Scheme (CBAS). That is according to the Small Firms Association, which has called for the €60m in supports aimed at businesses that are ineligible for other Covid supports to be rolled out.

• Joint research by the Central Bank and the Central Statistics Office has found that without the PUP and wage subsidies, household incomes would have fallen by 20% in the second three months of last year due to Covid–19.

• Households continued to save money and pay down debt in January, according to the latest figures from the Central Bank. Deposits increased by €1.9 billion in net terms to reach yet another historic high of €126.4 billion by the end of the month.

Brexit

• Senior EU figures are contemplating a major reset in relations with the UK that would coincide with the formal ratification of the free trade agreement at the end of April. The idea would be for both sides to work towards a package of solutions around the outstanding issues of the Northern Ireland Protocol, as well as other areas of tension, such as the status of the EU’s delegation to the UK.

Travel

• Aer Lingus and British Airways owner IAG has posted a loss after tax and exceptional items of €6.923 billion for 2020 after a year of minimal flying in the pandemic when it has burnt through cash. The worsening travel outlook and tighter restrictions brought in by countries over the last two months have threatened to ruin Europe’s critical summer season and leave some carriers in need of another round of funding support, analysts warn.

• Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has said there are currently around 1,000 to 3,500 international arrivals into the country each day, while 10,500 people arrived at Dublin Airport last week.