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The Briefing

AIKEN Weekly Digest – 26th March

AIKEN Weekly Digest – 26th March Banner

by Aiken PR

26/03/2021

First Minister and Health Minister at odds over summer holidays.

Northern Ireland boss Ian Baraclough said he was confident about his defensive team’s form ahead of a clash with Italy this week. Though the team went down 2–0 to Italy in Parma, at least they can say they had a nice overnighter in an exotic destination. Sadly, that might be more than you or I can say this year, or maybe not.


The First Minister and Health Minister appeared at odds this week over the likelihood of a foreign summer holiday. Robin Swann warned that foreign holidays are “very much” out this summer as he expressed concern about the potential of a further surge in cases and the consequences that would have across the under–pressure health system. However, he said plans being progressed by Westminster that will see people fined £5,000 if they leave England without a good reason are “not a direction of travel that we would be going on at this point in the Executive”. Yet, later on the same day, Arlene Foster said it was “too soon” to be ruling out a holiday ahead of a report from the Global Travel Taskforce which is due on 12th April and will make recommendations around international travel. Though this digest has explored the ambiguities of the ‘pathway to recovery’ before, it is disconcerting to know that it extends to Executive ministers and on a policy area that attracts a lot of public interest. The Northern Ireland Tourism Alliance understandably criticised Stormont ministers for “confused” messaging around booking a holiday, with the sentiments echoed by the boss of Belfast City Airport. Though these things are easy to dismiss as press conference comments taken out of context, they show again a lack of a joined–up approach from the Executive. As Northern Ireland’s moves through the phases of unlock, Executive agreement and communication will be critical in explaining to citizens what allowances they now have. To encourage public compliance and understanding, greater clarity will be critical.

Relations between the UK and EU appeared to have simmered down slightly as European Union leaders stopped short of banning vaccine exports after a protracted row with the Anglo–Swedish manufacturer AstraZeneca. However, with the French foreign minister claiming the UK will struggle to source second Covid jabs and that Brussels would not be “blackmailed” into exporting doses to solve the problem, this might appear short lived. For the UK’s part, fighting with the EU remains a key part of appealing to the electoral base. Lord Frost said this week that it is difficult to see how the NI Protocol can be “genuinely durable” without the consent of “all of the people” of NI. Though this might be true, it is hard to see how such a comment from one of the architects of the protocol might be seen as constructive by the EU. Political motivations continue to outweigh those that might offer practical benefit. The UK’s position is known, while the EU is unwilling to grant concessions to a possible competitor and a recalcitrant one at that. For Northern Ireland, stuck in the middle as it is, if just in a regulatory sense, it looks set to continue to bear the brunt of tensions as they rise and fall. Still, with the likes of John Lewis and ao.com resuming deliveries, it is proof practical solutions can be found, if it is just businesses able to provide them.

The revised Climate Action Bill published in Dublin, with its strengthened legal provisions on critical targets, showed a demonstrable level if increased ambition. The overall targets are unquestionably onerous and, as the Taoiseach warned, will lead to “difficult annual phases of engagement” with different sectors. The bill committed Ireland to carbon neutrality by no later than 2050 and introduce a requirement for the government to adopt sectoral emission ceilings for each relevant sector within the limits of each carbon budget. A series of economy–wide five–year carbon budgets will be adopted on a rolling 15–year basis. The bill won plaudits from environmental stakeholders including Oisín Coghlan, director of Friends of the Earth Ireland. Coghlan said, “this climate bill is a big step in the right direction. The first draft had too many loopholes. Now, the targets are tighter, the duty to act is stronger, and the language is clearer.”

NI

Health

• The number of Covid–19–related deaths registered in NI has fallen for the eighth week in a row. The virus was mentioned on 15 death certificates in the week to Friday 19 March, according to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra). That is 17 fewer than the previous week and brings its total of Covid–related registered deaths to 2,886.

Vaccine

• Science is winning the race between coronavirus and the vaccine, Pfizer’s UK medical director has said. Dr Berkeley Phillips has said it is important that people were “allowed to start living again”.

• More than 700,000 people in Northern Ireland have now had their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine. It means that nearly half the adult population – 703,334 people – has received at least one jab.

Economy

• There was an improvement in living standards in Northern Ireland in the year before the pandemic, official figures suggest. Most indicators of poverty fell with a particularly significant decline in poverty among working–age adults.

• The Northern Ireland jobs market saw a small improvement at the start of this year, the latest official figures suggest. However, there are still 8,000 fewer people in employment than before the pandemic.

Brexit

• Northern Ireland’s fishermen say they have been short–changed in a UK share–out of extra Brexit fish. They say they got only £14m of the £20m–a–year worth of additional quota they believe they were due.

• The head of the Trader Support Service (TSS) has defended its performance in easing trade across the Irish Sea border. The TSS was set up with government funding to help businesses deal with new customs processes. Christian Benson from Fujitsu said he was “incredibly proud” of what had been achieved and that the service was “gradually improving”.

Public Finance

• Stormont departments are to receive an additional £220m from the Treasury as a result of extra health spending announced for England. Last week, the UK health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced an extra £7bn for the NHS.

Energy

• The environment minister is pressing ahead with plans for his own climate bill, even though another one has begun its progress through the assembly. Edwin Poots will take proposals to the executive for approval this week. If supported, the work will return to Stormont’s bills office for formal drafting.

Travel

• People are “confused” over messaging on summer holidays coming from both health officials and the executive, according to the Northern Ireland Tourism Alliance (NITA). Joanne Stuart from the NITA said “what doesn’t help is speculation”.

ROI

Health

• Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has told the Dáil that getting daily Covid–19 cases to the low numbers achieved last year is “not a prospect” due to the B117 variant. He said it was “very hard to see” how it was possible to secure a rate lower than 500 cases per day, despite “the enormous efforts of the Irish people”.

Vaccine

• The European Union will ensure that coronavirus vaccines produced by AstraZeneca within the bloc stay in Europe until the company returns to fulfilling its delivery commitments, Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said today.

• European Union Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides has urged other countries manufacturing Covid–19 vaccines to contribute to global supply and facilitate the good functioning of supply chains.

Economy

• The Covid–19 pandemic has led to one in four people cutting back on food and utilities, according to research commissioned by the Society of St Vincent de Paul.

• The Economic and Social Research Institute has lowered its forecasts for growth in the economy this year, due to ongoing Level 5 pandemic restrictions. In its Quarterly Economic Commentary, it has also significantly reduced the number of house completions it expects this year.

Business Support

• The Government has confirmed that it will extend the €2 billion Credit Guarantee Scheme, with the scheme remaining open for applications until the end of the year. The scheme is the biggest ever state–backed loan guarantee in Ireland and offers an 80% Government guarantee to participating lenders to provide Irish businesses with access to low interest loans.

Education

• Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has said “no private school should have received vaccines from a private hospital”. The comments come after the Beacon Hospital confirmed it administered 20 leftover Covid–19 vaccines to a number of teachers at St Gerard’s School in Bray earlier this week.

• The latest data on Covid–19 in schools shows a small increase in positivity rates amongst close contacts tested. Minister for Education Norma Foley said public health advice showed that outbreaks remained very low in schools.

Travel

• The first passengers to face mandatory hotel quarantine in Ireland have arrived at the designated facility. Around 20 travellers arriving into Dublin Airport earlier today were transferred by bus to the first quarantine centre at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Santry.