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The Briefing

AIKEN Weekly Digest – 12th March

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by Aiken PR

12/03/2021

It was the interview everyone was waiting for and, whichever side you were on, it did not disappoint.

Column inches, comment pieces and analysis galore, the media have had a field day. Ahead of his return to the Player’s Championship, Rory McIlroy denied his best form was behind him as he addressed questions about his recent inconsistencies. For some, it will have done little to dispel the point of view that the golfer simply needs to get on with it and let his play do the talking. For others, it will be further proof of his ability to talk with absolute candour, a rarity in modern day professional sport. What we can be sure of is that this debate is set to run and run especially, as Oprah claims, there are two more hours of footage not yet broadcast.

This week saw the UK delay Post–Brexit checks on some EU goods coming into Great Britain by six months to allow businesses to prepare. It is the second time that the timetable for these checks, originally due after the post–Brexit transition ended in January 2021, has been put back. Meanwhile, the EU has been implementing full checks on goods sent from the UK since the start of this year. The British Retail Consortium, which represents everything from major supermarkets to fast food chains and online businesses, said it would have been “foolhardy” not to delay checks given the current state of border infrastructure and IT systems. British exporters that are facing non–tariff barriers in trade with the EU and even with Northern Ireland, might, however, express concern about the impact of EU competitors having ongoing free access to the UK market.

Boris Johnson and the Cabinet office launched a Union charm offensive this week, with several measures aimed at encouraging engagement with Westminster and the UK government. One of these, which some commentators see as a flight of fancy with the impracticality and travel expense of shipping MPs around the UK, was plans for each devolved administration to host parliament for 2 weeks each year. Then of course there was the news that the UK government’s plans for The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to open an office in Northern Ireland. In a statement, the MHCLG said that the office would “help implement new UK–wide investment programmes”. Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon was quick out of the blocks, stating that this would diminish devolution in Northern Ireland, adding it represents “removing power from local people”. And, not content with that she is said to be pursuing counsel from the Attorney General’s office, on whether the PM has overstepped the parliamentary mark. Then of course, the man himself made a last–minute visit to Northern Ireland today which seemed to focus on providing reassurance to Unionism that issues with the protocol would be resolved. He met with FM Arlene Foster who will have had plenty to say but not Sinn Fein who described today’s visit as a publicity stunt.

On the vaccine front the EU’s programme remains under intense scrutiny. Perhaps partially as a result of that, vaccination procurement has seemingly become another proxy for Brexit. Through both the presidents of the European Commission and the European Council, the EU has suggested the UK has an export ban on vaccines. When challenged on the point, EU officials on behalf of Charles Michel, the EU Council President, said the assertion was made on the basis of evidence provided by the Commission. Officials there have so far been unable to share that evidence. The EU chose a different strategy to the UK in terms of vaccine procurement, rating lower cost per vaccine and improved levels of indemnity. For the time being, it appears they got it wrong. With the UK placing a venture capitalist in charge of its procurement effort, investing heavily in early stage but risky development, it secured guarantees in delivery. The EU’s focus on cost could be undermined by a slower exit from lockdown, further impacting the economy, while the improved indemnity cover seems unnecessary to date. Fortunately, though a proxy for the wider Brexit debate, it has so far failed to ignite into anything more serious for Northern Ireland, bar one crazy Friday night.

As a result of delays within the EU’s vaccine supply chain, member states have failed to meet planned targets and, so far, Dublin has chosen not to procure any vaccines of their own accord, which they are entitled to do. The Taoiseach previously said that the target was to have delivered 1.25m vaccines by the end of March. On current numbers, that requires 210,000 vaccines to be administered per week, yet the target for this week was 84,000 and last week 86,000 were administered, down on the targeted 92,000. Though comments by both the Sinn Féin president and First Minister suggesting Northern Ireland share vaccines with ROI have had mixed interpretation, a two–speed exit from lockdown could cause serious policy problems if people are incentivised to cross the border to access newly opened services. In the long run, who has deemed to have implemented a more effective vaccine strategy is somewhat irrelevant to the here and now. Though ROI has 4% of the population who have received two doses, and Northern Ireland 3.1%, 41.1% of Northern Ireland’s population have received one dose compared with 2.1% in ROI. With studies showing one dose can offer protections from serious illness and reduction in transmission, it provides policymakers with the flexibility to move out of lockdown. Without a rebalancing effort in vaccine rollout across the island of Ireland, that said the two–speed exit will present real challenges to an increasingly under pressure Irish Government.

NI

Health

• The UK government has agreed to deploy 100 members of the military to Northern Ireland to support the “accelerated rollout” of Covid–19 vaccines. It is the second time medically trained members of the armed forces have been sent to NI to support health service staff during the pandemic.

• Rapid coronavirus testing kits are being rolled out to employers in four key sectors in Northern Ireland. They will be made available to those working in agri–food, manufacturing, essential retail and construction.

Business Support

 

• The Executive today announced a Covid support scheme for travel agents experiencing difficulties as a result of the pandemic. First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the support scheme was necessary to ensure the continued viability of the travel agency sector.

Rates Holiday

• Finance minister Conor Murphy has announced that the business rates holiday in Northern Ireland will be extended for a further 12 months for hospitality, tourism and leisure businesses.

• Minister Murphy said: “This £230 million package will provide continued support for businesses dealing with the impacts of the pandemic. Recognising that the months ahead will continue to be hugely challenging, extending the 12 months rates holiday in the hardest hit sectors will protect jobs.”

• Colin Neill, chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, said: “This is really welcome news at a time when businesses in the hospitality sector are dead on their feet. They have either been closed or required to operate under the most severe restrictions of any business sector for nearly a year. The reopening phase, as outlined last week, will take months to get everyone trading again and most likely with restrictions in place.

City Deal

• Economy Minister Diane Dodds has welcomed the Belfast Region City Deal that will provide a platform for Northern Ireland to thrive in important sectors of the global economy such as life and health sciences and data analytics.

Planning

• Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon has announced a further extension to 30 September 2021 of the temporary suspension of the requirement to hold a public event as part of pre–application community consultation on major planning applications.

Corporation Tax

• A commission to examine the possibility of giving Stormont more taxation powers is to be led by the economist Paul Johnson. Mr Johnson is the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), a high–profile think tank. Finance Minister Conor Murphy expects it will take about nine months for the commission to complete its work.

Brexit

• Trade unionists have denied claims they told council officials that car registrations of Larne Port staff conducting Brexit checks were recorded. Mid and East Antrim Borough Council withdrew its port staff temporarily last month over security concerns.

• More than 79,000 people in NI have applied to the scheme that will allow them to remain in post–Brexit UK, according to official figures. The settlement scheme is designed to give EU citizens – who entered the UK under the EU’s freedom of movement principle – the right to remain. The latest figures show that by the end of December, a decision had been reached on 72,610 applications.

• Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots has called on those who backed the Northern Ireland Protocol to apologise to the people of Northern Ireland. Mr Poots was appearing at a Stormont scrutiny committee for the first time since his return after cancer treatment.

• The department store John Lewis has said it expects to restart deliveries to Northern Ireland “before the summer”. Deliveries stopped in December due to Brexit and the Irish Sea border.

Education

• A scheme to offer weekly Covid tests to pupils and staff at all special schools in Northern Ireland has been delayed. The Department of Education (DE) said it was “due to issues in relation to the delivery of the kits”.

• Education Minister Peter Weir wants all pupils in Northern Ireland back in classrooms by 12 April after the Easter holidays. The proposal is included in a paper from Mr Weir to executive ministers. It also recommends that all primary school children who have not yet returned to school (primaries four to seven) should start on 22 March.

• Childcare providers are to receive a further £11.8m in Covid–19 support. The funding, announced by Education Minister Peter Weir on Tuesday, is the second phase of a scheme to help the sector.

NI–GB Bridge

• An official feasibility study is to assess the possibility of building a bridge or tunnel between Northern Ireland and Scotland. The transport expert Sir Peter Hendy was asked by the government to examine connections between the different parts of the UK. He has said further work should now be undertaken to look at a “fixed link” across the Irish Sea.

NI Centenary

• Official events to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland will include a special post–mark, an international church service and a plan to plant a tree at every school. The programme of events also includes an investment conference, a concert and a centenary rose.

ROI


Health

• Ireland is at a “delicate point” and now is not the time for people to relax public health measures, the Chair of the National Public Health Emergency Team Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group has warned.

• Residents of long–term residential care facilities, including nurses homes, can receive two visits per week from 22 March on compassionate grounds where a facility has a high level of vaccinations.

Vaccine

• The National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) has said there is no change to advice around the use of the AstraZeneca Covid–19 vaccine in light of reports of clotting issues in a small number of people who had received the jab.

• AstraZeneca has again angered the European Union by scaling back deliveries of Covid–19 vaccines, but got a boost when the World Health Organization dismissed blood clotting fears that have prompted countries in Europe and Asia to suspend use of the shot.

• Taoiseach Micheál Martin has sought a meeting with the CEO of AstraZeneca for next week, to discuss the production and supply of Covid–19 vaccines.

Business

• Almost two thirds of chief executives here believe that their companies will end up paying more tax as a result of policy changes to address rising debt levels arising from the pandemic.

Consumer

• New figures from the Central Statistics Office show that consumer prices were 0.4% lower in February compared with the same time last year. But consumer prices grew on a monthly basis for the fourth successive month in February, today’s CSO figures show.

Housing

• Property prices across the country rose by 2.6% in the year to January, according to the latest figures from the Central Statistics Office, its fastest rate of growth since May 2019. This was an increase on the 2.2% recorded in the year to December.

• New Central Statistics Office figures show that more apartments than houses were granted planning permission in 2020. Planning permissions were granted for 26,224 apartments last year, a jump of 33.9% on 2019 and the highest number since 2005.

Tourism

• Hotel summer bookings remain at an all time low, according to the latest survey by the Irish Hotels Federation. The findings show that hotels and guesthouses are reporting booking levels of just 22% for July and 20% for August, which are usually the key summer months.

Energy

• ESB Group has reported an operating profit before exceptional items of €616m for 2020, a decrease of €66m on 2019 after a “challenging” operating environment brought about by the Covid–19 pandemic.