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Demand for North’s Covid shopping voucher scheme causes website difficulties

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Shoppers have been urged not to “rush at once” to apply for Northern Ireland’s high street voucher scheme, after the website experienced difficulties on the first morning.

The £145m (€170m)High Street Stimulus Scheme will see all those aged over 18 eligible for a £100 pre-paid card to spend on the high street, aimed at supporting local businesses which have been devastated by Covid.

But as the scheme opened on Monday, a number of people used social media to complain that were experiencing difficulties in applying for the card on the NI Direct site.

Some said the site had crashed, while others had not immediately received a verification email after entering their details.

A spokesman for the North’s Department for the Economy said: “The website is currently experiencing some challenges associated with high demand.

“We are working quickly to fix this, but we always knew demand for the Spend Local card would be extremely high which is why we are giving people four weeks to apply.

“Please be patient, there is plenty of time for everyone to apply, receive and use their card.”

Economy minister Gordon Lyons said the application portal would be open until October 25th, so there was no need for everyone to register on the first morning.

He told the BBC: “Today is another step on the road to economic recovery and building a healthy economy, which is a key objective for me in this department and this scheme is a big part of that.

“I would encourage people to remember that it is open until October 25 so not everybody has to rush at once, there is a card available for everyone that is eligible and so I would encourage people to apply for that over the coming weeks and, of course, to spend it local in those businesses that have been most affected during the period of restrictions.

“Nothing like this has ever happened before, 1.5m people are eligible to apply for the card at this time and we always had expected there would be huge demand, it is a popular scheme for both individuals and businesses.

“I don’t think everyone will apply today. I think people will realise they have until October 25th, but during those periods where there is an awful lot of demand there is that safeguard in place so that the website is able to continue to operate.”

He added: “I want to help those businesses in particular that were affected by the restrictions and the lockdowns that were in place. That means local, this is spend local and it is spending in retailers and hospitality, but also in entertainment and leisure as well.”

All applicants will be asked to provide their name, address, age, gender, disability status, national insurance number, email address and telephone number.

The application portal will remain open until October 25, with the first cards arriving in the post on the week beginning October 4. The cards will be valid until November 30.

Retail NI has urged shoppers to consider making their application later in the week to reduce pressure on the online portal.

The group’s chief executive Glyn Roberts said: “If people can wait a few days before making their application, hopefully we can avoid any delays or problems with a rush on the online portal and they will receive their voucher on a timely basis.

“With a scheme of this ambition and size we are bound to experience some problems and would urge shoppers to be patient.”–PA



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The Best 'Kalinka' Ever Recorded – Red Army Chorus Sings WW2 Favorite – 1965

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by RI Staff ()

Fantastic.

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Diver finds 900-year-old Crusader sword off coast of Israel

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Shlomi Katzin attached a GoPro camera to his forehead, slipped on his diving fins and jumped into the waters off the Carmel coast of Israel, eager to go exploring.

On the sandy floor of the Mediterranean Sea, he found a sword. Archaeologists would later determine that it was about 900 years old.

It weighed four pounds, measured about four feet long and originated from the Third Crusade, experts said.

“Oh yes, he was surprised and happy,” said Jacob Sharvit, the director of the marine archaeology unit at the Israel Antiquities Authority. Katzin said he would give the sword to Sharvit’s agency, but he wanted just one thing: a photo with the shell-encrusted weapon.

The recent discovery was welcomed in a country that takes immense pride in its history and has a law requiring that any artifacts found must be returned to the nation. The sword was among several artifacts discovered by Katzin, who declined to be interviewed because he said he did not want the discovery to be about him. He also found stone anchors and pottery fragments that date back hundreds of years. But nothing was more impressive than the sword, which Sharvit described as “extremely rare.”

All of the items were found in the same 1,000-square-foot site. The authority has been aware of the location since June, after a storm shifted the sand. Still, finding artifacts remains elusive because of the movement of the sand.

“It’s normal to find swords in bad condition, but this one was found under the water – and under the water, it was preserved in very good condition,” Sharvit said Monday. “It’s the first time that we found a beautiful sword like this.”

The water off the Carmel coast remains the same temperature year-round, which helped preserve the iron in the sword. Because the iron was oxidizsed, shells and other marine organisms stuck onto it like glue, Sharvit said. The discovery of ancient artifacts has increased as diving has grown in popularity in Israel, he said.

In the Second Crusade, the Muslim forces defeated Western crusaders at Damascus, said Jonathan Phillips, a professor of the history of the Crusades at Royal Holloway, University of London. The sword would have been expensive to make at the time and viewed as a status symbol, Holloway said. It makes sense that it was found in the sea, he said, because many battles were waged near beaches, where Christian soldiers landed and were sometimes attacked by Muslim forces.

“It could have been from a knight who fell in the sea or lost it in a fight at sea,” he said. When Katzin found it, he said he was afraid it would be stolen or buried beneath shifting sand, according to a statement from the authority. The general director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Eli Escosido, praised Katzin because “every ancient artifact that is found helps us piece together the historical puzzle of the Land of Israel.” Katzin was given a certificate of appreciation for good citizenship.

During the Third Crusade, King Philip Augustus of France, King Richard I (also known as Richard the Lionheart of England), and the holy Roman emperor, Frederick I (also known as Frederick Barbarossa), set out to retake Jerusalem. Saladin, the ruler of an area covering modern Egypt, Syria and Iraq, had conquered it in 1187, said John Cotts, a professor of medieval history at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.

At the time, Pope Gregory VIII tried to inspire Western Christians through “great emotional language” to retake Jerusalem from Muslims, but ultimately the Muslim army maintained control of the city, Cotts said. “Traditionally, the definition of a knight is someone on horseback who engaged in mounted warfare,” Cotts said. It is possible that the sword belonged to one of them, and has survived for nine centuries, Sharvit said. After the sword is studied and cleaned, it will be placed in one of the country’s museums, Sharvit said. He would not disclose how much it could sell for, he said, because in his opinion, it was “priceless.” “Every artifact we find is always a really great feeling,” he said. But this one “is very, very special.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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OPINION: Watching from Italy we always knew UK’s Covid response was a ‘failure’

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Watching the Covid-19 pandemic hit the UK from Italy was like looking into a parallel universe.

As someone with a dual British and Italian identity, it was also a defining moment for my relationship with the UK.

On March 9th, 2020, Italy’s then-Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced the first nationwide lockdown. The message of his historic ‘Io Resto a Casa’ (‘I’m staying home’) speech was clear: public health comes before other interests, as important as they may be.

And we stayed home. The Great Italian Bake-Off had begun.

As the crisis worsened in other countries, Britons living in Italy – and Italians living in Britain – looked at the UK’s response and thought: what are they waiting for?

To our frustration, the recent Commons report on the UK’s handling of the first wave of the pandemic only told those of us with connections to both countries what we already knew. The UK hadn’t learned from Italy’s experience.

Unsurprisingly, the Commons report called the UK’s government decisions on lockdowns and social distancing in the early weeks of the pandemic “one of the most important public health failures the UK has ever experienced”.

It was a delay that cost thousands of lives.

Italy battled the pandemic with little data. But crucially, Italian officials drilled the message, quite literally, home: the situation is serious and there is no time to waste.

SEE ALSO: 19 unforgettable photos from a year of strict Covid lockdowns in Italy

By comparison, the UK’s attitude – despite by then having access to data from China, the WHO and Italy – was staggering.

The Commons report brings the bewilderment we felt at the time into clear focus.

On January 31st 2020, then-Health Minister Matt Hancock was informed by experts that a worst-case scenario would cause 820,000 deaths.

The same week Italy locked down, the numbers in the UK started to align with this worst-case scenario. Despite the alarming data, Britain’s lockdown plan was yet to be formulated.

The same day, famed TV doctor Christian Jessen was forced to issue a public apology after comparing Covid-19 to the flu and accusing Italians of using lockdown as an excuse for a “siesta”.

Faced with such widespread mixed messaging, it’s little wonder the British public appeared largely oblivious to the looming danger.

As the military was called in to help with Bergamo’s overflowing morgues on March 18th, British acquaintances happily announced on social media that they were not closing shop.

Watching the UK’s response to Covid from Italy was like watching a drunk friend get behind the wheel of their car. Unfortunately, there was no snatching the keys out of their hands and calling a taxi.

Sharon Braithwaite, a British-Italian journalist living in London, says that, as people stocked up on pasta and toilet paper, she too asked: ”when will the (UK) government do something concrete?’.

It was frustrating – and at times insulting – for those of us with connections to both countries to hear how the Italian crisis was being narrated in Britain.

A great deal of myths have been used to justify why Italy was so badly affected. Some blamed multi-generational families living under the same roof, while others pointed the finger at the Italian practice of kissing on the cheek. Though multigenerational families are more common in Italy than they are in the UK, the set-up is not so widespread that it could explain the overfilled morgues.

READ ALSO: Eight things the Covid crisis has taught us about Italy

Perhaps most insidious of all were the comments made about Italy’s National Health System.

In one example, Dr Zoe Williams, a family doctor and media personality, reassured the public by saying in an interview on This Morning – a staple of British daytime TV – that ‘[the British] healthcare system is very different to Italy’.

Where the difference lies is unclear: both countries fall under the same universal healthcare model, even though Italy’s is highly decentralised, leaving health care management to individual regions.

Contrary to popular opinion, the Italian health care system is internationally well-regarded and is often ranked as one of the best in the world.

And the pandemic first hit (and overwhelmed) northern Italian regions widely regarded as having the best healthcare in the country.

Seeing Italy’s flagship hospitals in the wealthy region of Lombardy under tremendous strain should have been a further alarm bell.

If Italians have the second-highest life expectancy in Europe (83.1 years, second only to Spain) the healthcare system is to thank.

During the British government’s own enquiry, Professor Dame Sally Davies, former Chief Medical Officer for England, blamed “groupthink” and “British exceptionalism” for the fact British experts did not believe something like SARS could ever get from Asia to the UK.

READ ALSO: What can Italy teach the rest of the world about health?

As Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, said: the UK “missed an opportunity to prepare during the first months of 2020”.

This had long been apparent to many in Italy. As someone with dual British and Italian identity, the pandemic, paired with the chaos created by Brexit, is transforming my relationship with Britain. 

No longer the country of common sense and opportunity, Britain seems like a land consumed by isolationism and exceptionalism – an issue which has now engulfed public health.

The UK now has among the highest infection rates in the world, with 45,000 new cases being reported in a single day. The death toll is rising.

In Italy, for now the health situation remains largely under control. The government and the majority of people remain cautious. In some ways, nothing has changed.



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