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The Briefing

AIKEN Weekly Digest – 5th March

AIKEN Weekly Digest – 5th March Banner

by Aiken PR

05/03/2021

Exciting, or maybe slightly intimidating news this week: the opening episode of the new series of Line of Duty will be a “head–wreck” according to star Adrian Dunbar.

Exciting, or maybe slightly intimidating news this week: the opening episode of the new series of Line of Duty will be a “head–wreck” according to star Adrian Dunbar. With everything else going on, I’m not sure I can cope with the true identity of ‘H’.


Fortunately, the deputy First Minister had the antidote, responding to critiques of the Executive’s plan out of lockdown, telling us in the Thursday press conference she was hopeful Northern Ireland would have reached stage five of the exit strategy by June 10. Of course, this came with a note of caution and the Executive has a slight fad for being fashionably late with things, but it certainly provides business and individuals with a bit of hope. However, Michelle O’Neill also said in a radio interview that if “you compare what’s happening in England, Scotland, Wales, our cases here are still much, much higher even though we are on a downward trajectory”. The comment was rejected by the Health Minister while the Chief Medical Officer said he had neither heard the comment, nor was he aware of the context, so could not comment. Instead, he chose to list other figures suggesting Northern Ireland was in a better position than England in relation to the number of active Covid–19 cases. With a public debate on the facts and analysis amongst the key decision makers, it would appear 10 June is still a long way off.

Elsewhere, the Chancellor delivered the 2021 Budget in extraordinary times, though several of its more prominent features had led headlines in recent weeks. Or been announced previously. So, at least some things stay the same. Rishi Sunak said the Budget was about “bringing prosperity to the whole United Kingdom”, adding that a “majority of today’s Budget measures will apply directly to people in all four nations of the United Kingdom.” The Budget included a generous extension of the furlough scheme, now running until September, along with an extension of the stamp duty holiday and a new mortgage guarantee scheme for 95% loan to value mortgages. Yet, it is tax rises that have garnered most attention. The Chancellor announced a tax rise that the Office for Budget Responsibility equated to the highest level since the 1960s. Sunak said the move was necessary after spending an “unimaginable” £352 billion in response to the pandemic. Paul Johnson, head of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said that taxes were now likely to be at their highest sustained level in history and that he expected the tax burden to remain high. The Resolution Foundation said that anyone earning above £53,685 would see their tax bills rise by up to £853 a year by 2025 because of the freeze in the thresholds.

Back home, and back to Brexit, Chief Constable of the PSNI, Simon Byrne, said this he does not believe there is currently a prospect of a return to violence after a group representing the views of loyalist paramilitaries withdrew its support for the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). The Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) had written to the Prime Minister telling him the main loyalist paramilitary groups were withdrawing support for Agreement until their “rights under the agreement were restored”. Byrne said the letter has been initially assessed as a “political move”. However, with the likes of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson suggesting unionist confidence and support for the GFA “is diminishing rapidly”, it might be a political move with broadening support. For the time being, such moves are principally indicators of the febrile nature of the debate around the protocol. Accordingly, the political trade–offs and tensions between the UK and EU are likely to be the most unsettling for business. Nonetheless, given Northern Ireland’s unique history, the historical context will continue to weigh heavy.

Or at least it should. The UK’s protocol implementation effort, now spearheaded by Lord Frost, took an expectedly more confrontational position this week. Though Frost has argued the UK’s easements are “technical steps” consistent with the protocol, the EU has threatened legal action. London and Brussels appears at loggerheads, even though business opinion, examples of falling EU–UK trade and the often cited ‘historical context’ suggest a resolution is necessary. And, while some would point the finger entirely at London, Arlene Foster’s appearance at the recent Joint Committee, where she ran through the data on checks conducted in January for animal products, totalling 5,596 document identity checks and 248 physical checks entered into the EU’s Traces system, before declaring that no pests, problems or non–compliant goods had been identified, is a clear indicator that something is broken on all side. Until it is fixed, the solution remains elusive, business and consumers will continue to be the ones who lose out.

NI


Health

• The weekly number of Covid–19 related deaths registered in Northern Ireland has fallen for a fifth week. The NI Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra) said the virus was mentioned on the death certificates of 55 people, in the week to Friday 26 February. That is 23 fewer than the previous week, bringing the agency’s total to 2,806.

Budget

• Core day–to–day funding for Stormont departments will only rise by £4m as a result of the budget the NI Finance Minister says. The chancellor said it would mean an extra £410m but Conor Murphy said most of that was Covid–related.

• Stormont’s draft budget is ‘a very challenging funding settlement’, Ulster University economists have warned. The budget was published in January 2021. It showed only a marginal cash increase in core funding for day–to–day spending.

Brexit

• The UK government has been criticised for “poking the EU in the eye” over grace periods for Irish Sea border checks. The comments were made by Jonathan Powell, who was chief of staff for former Prime Minister Tony Blair. The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator has said legal action is imminent over the UK’s move to unilaterally extend grace periods on the checks.

• A group which includes representatives of loyalist paramilitaries has written to the prime minister to withdraw its support for the Good Friday Agreement. The Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) said it was temporarily withdrawing its backing because of concerns about the Northern Ireland Protocol.

• A senior civil servant is taking legal advice about whether he can comply with an instruction from a Stormont minister to stop work on permanent facilities for post–Brexit trade checks.

Travel

 

• The UK Department for Transport and the NI Executive have agreed to continue funding for the direct route from City of Derry Airport to London Stansted. Funding of £4.37m will secure the route for the next two years, with Loganair continuing to operate the service.

• Ryanair has announced it will recommence flights from Belfast City Airport after an absence of 11 years. The Irish airline will operate flights to and from eight destinations in mainland Spain, the Balearic islands and Italy between June and October.

Hospitality

• Health Minister Robin Swann has appeared to rule out the idea of Covid–19 vaccine certification for people to get special access to pubs or restaurants in Northern Ireland. Mr Swann said it was “not something that sits comfortably” with him.

Education

• Schools who use transfer tests run by the Post–Primary Transfer Consortium (PPTC) are to consider “radical change” to the tests in the autumn. A discussion paper from PPTC has asked schools to consider whether to use verbal reasoning tests to decide which pupils to admit in 2022.

ROI

Health

• Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has revealed that more than 622,000 people are waiting for an outpatient appointment and 81,000 people are waiting on in–patient or day case appointments, 22% higher than this time last year.

Vaccine

 

• The Government has set a target of 84,166 Covid vaccines to be administered next week. HSE Chief Clinical Officer Colm Henry has said that almost half a million vaccines have been administered in Ireland to date, with 82,000 vaccines administered this week instead of the planned 100,000.

Europe

• The number of new coronavirus cases has risen in Europe after six weeks of decline, the World Health Organization has said. “Last week, new cases of Covid–19 in Europe rose 9% to just above one million. This brought a promising six–week decline in new cases to an end, with more than half of our region seeing increasing numbers of new infections,” WHO Europe’s regional director Hans Kluge told a news conference.

Public Finance

• The Minister for Finance has warned that it is dangerous for a small economy that cannot print its own currency to think that “deficits don’t matter” when evaluating policy options in the future. Addressing an Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) event, Paschal Donohoe said, in order to keeping the interest bill on the national debt down, Ireland’s deficit will have to be reduced at the appropriate pace and time.

Construction

• A building company has begun a High Court challenge to Covid–19 restrictions preventing construction works from resuming, claiming it is unjustifiable discrimination. The company, which is owned by developer Paddy McKillen Junior, has said the restrictions have “very serious commercial consequences”.

Economy

• The economy grew by 3.4% last year when measured by GDP, according to preliminary figures from the Central Statistic Office today. However, a measure of domestic activity which strips out the impact of multinationals showed that the economy shrank by 5.4% last year.

Trade

• Irish hauliers travelling on direct routes from Ireland to France will no longer require proof of a negative Covid–19 test, after the French government amended current legislation with immediate effect.

Travel

• A majority of passengers surveyed as they arrived at Dublin Airport last week listed returning from holiday or a visit abroad as their reason for travel. Data taken from surveys of arriving passengers show that arrivals into the airport increased by more than 10% between 22 and 28 of February, compared to the previous week. In total 11,067 people arrived into the country during the period.

Education

• Minister for Education Norma Foley has told the Dáil that at this point in time, the National Public Health Emergency Team has not recommended that primary school children wear face coverings.