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Department of Health will not need a bailout for first time in many years

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The Department of Health will not need a bailout this year for the first time in many years, a document presented to the Cabinet on Tuesday reveals.

Huge funding increases allocated last year appear to have solved the perennial problem of running out of cash and needing extra funds, which has dogged the department. It is now expected that the Department of Health will not spend its full allocation this year.

An expenditure management report presented to Cabinet on Tuesday – itself a device to control chronic overspending in the health sector – reveals the Department of Health is currently underspending its budgets for both capital and current spending.

Current spending is running at €656 million below the expected level, while capital spending is at €76 million below profile.

It is understood one of the reasons for the underspend is that the hiring of new staff is proceeding at a slower level than expected due to the pandemic and the data hack suffered by the HSE before the summer.

While the HSE has hired more staff than ever before it is expected that the organisation will fall far short of the targeted 14,000 additional staff it had hoped to recruit this year. Sources say it expects to be able to complete the recruitment of 7,000–8,000 staff by the end of the year. It has hired just over 4,000 additional staff at this point.

The ending of the long succession of overspends in the department reflects tighter budgetary management, which has been a goal of administrators for many years. Robert Watt, formerly the top civil servant in the Department of Public Expenditure and a long-time critic of the inability of the health service to stay within its budgets, joined the Department of Health as secretary general earlier this year.

However, it also reflects the massive increase in funding allocated to the department in last year’s budget, when an additional €4 billion was voted, bringing its total budget to about €22 billion for this year.

About half of that sum was allocated for Covid measures, but the other half was considered a “step change” in funding for the department, which it had long sought.

However, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said at his party conference earlier this year that the department should retain all the extra €4 billion in funding in its future budgets, and use the additional €2 billion in Covid funding for other measures.

Tough budget negotiations on this question are understood to be under way between officials and Ministers at present.

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European Commission recommends travel ban on southern Africa amid fears over new Covid variant

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The EU is expected to announce an immediate travel ban to southern Africa because of the discovery of a new Covid-19 variant.

The B.1.1.529 variant, which is more transmissible than the dominant Delta variant and could evade vaccines, has been discovered in South Africa’s most populous province Gauteng.

The EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen tweeted: “The @EU_Commission will propose, in close coordination with Member States, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region due to the variant of concern B.1.1.529.”

The future of this year’s United Rugby Championship (URC) could be in jeopardy as it has four South African teams in it.

Munster are in the country to play Bulls in Pretoria on Saturday night and are due to stay on to play Lions in Johannesburg next weekend.

The UK has suspended flights from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland).

Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer, Michael McBride, said the emergence of the new variant was “undoubtedly a matter of concern”.

Recent arrivals to Northern Ireland from the six countries on the UK list will be contacted by the Public Health Agency (PHA) and asked to self-isolate and take a PCR test, which will be prioritised for genomic sequencing.

Further assessments will be made concerning other countries with strong travel links to South Africa, the North’s Department of Health said.

Dr McBride said the introduction of travel restrictions was on a “precautionary basis, while we await further evidence on the spread of this variant in South Africa and understand more about it.”

The official Munster rugby Twitter account stated: “We all are safe & well in Pretoria. We are working with URC on the ongoing situation relating to Covid-19 & will provide an update once we know more #MunsterInSA.”

The Covid adviser for the Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP), Mary Favier has warned that if the new South African variant of the virus manages to “out run” Delta, then “we will have a problem”.

It was still unknown if vaccines would work against the new variant which was why so much attention was being paid to it, she told Newstalk Breakfast.

Dr Favier also welcomed plans to extend the vaccine programme to children aged 5-11. GPs knew the difference that vaccines could make, however, she pointed out that it would be a parental decision and GPs would be willing to discuss the issue with parents.

On RTÉ Radio 1’s Morning Ireland programme immunology expert, Professor Christine Loscher said she expected the World Health Organisation (WHO) to move the status of the new variant from one of interest to one of concern in the near future.

The new variant was of concern because of the number of mutations in the spike proteins and it was still unclear how this variant would respond to vaccines. It was a case of wait and see the impact, she said.

Within the coming weeks it would be known how good current vaccines were at neutralising antibodies in the variant, added Prof Loscher. But she pointed out that vaccine manufacturers have been able to “tweak” vaccines as the virus changed.

“That’s a positive thing to know, that they have the technology to vary the vaccine as variants arrive.”

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said he is “deeply concerned” about the new Covid variant.

The Department of Health said it is monitoring the situation in a number of countries in southern Africa and in Hong Kong. No cases have yet been reported in Europe.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) will meet on Friday to to further assess the significance of this variant.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has not updated its travel advice to South Africa on its website. It no longer advises against non-essential travel.




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Italy tightens Covid restrictions as some regions face return to ‘yellow’ zone

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A government decree that comes into force from December 6th will require a ‘super green pass’ health certificate to access most venues and services across the country, in a bid to contain Italy’s rising infection rate and ensure Christmas celebrations can go ahead as planned.

The ‘super green pass’ can be obtained only by those who are vaccinated against or have recovered from Covid-19. 

It supersedes the basic ‘green pass’, which was also available to those who had recently tested negative for the virus; though the basic green pass will still be valid for use on public transport and to access workplaces.

READ ALSO: Italy to impose ‘super green pass’ Covid restrictions on unvaccinated

Speaking at a televised press conference on Monday evening, Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi said the restrictions would mean a “normal” Christmas this year for those who are vaccinated, and would “give certainty to the tourist season”.

The announcement comes amid media reports that some Italian regions will be placed under increased restrictions starting next week.

People wearing a face mask do some window shopping on Piazza di Spagna in central Rome on December 13, 2020.

People wearing a face mask do some window shopping on Piazza di Spagna in central Rome on December 13, 2020. Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

The northerneastern region of Friuli Venezia Giulia will be returned to the more restricted ‘yellow’ zone from Monday, after it met all of the Italian government’s criteria for tightened restrictions.

Italy operates under a four-tier colour coded system for coronavirus restrictions, with ‘white’ zone areas under the most relaxed rules, and ‘yellow’, ‘orange’ and ‘red’ zones under increasingly strict restrictions.

Since October, the entire country has been in the least-restricted white zone – but this week, Friuli Venezia Giulia’s hospital ward occupancy and Covid infection rates exceeded the limits put in place by the government last summer.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How will Italy’s Covid restrictions change in December?

The region’s figures stood at 15 percent Covid patient ICU occupancy and 18 percent general hospital ward occupancy as of November 24th, according to data provided by Agenas, Italy’s National Agency for Health Services.

Under a law introduced by Italy’s government in July, any region above the threshold of 10 percent ICU and 15 percent general ward Covid patient occupancy and with a new weekly incident rate of 50 cases per 100,000 inhabitants should automatically be placed in the yellow zone.

It’s thought that mass demonstrations held in the region’s capital of Trieste last month to protest the introduction of a Covid health certificate requirement for Italy’s workers are partly behind its deteriorating health situation.

A Santa Claus puppet wearing a face mask is displayed in the window of a food store at Rome's Trevi fountain square on December 23, 2020.

A Santa Claus puppet wearing a face mask is displayed in the window of a food store at Rome’s Trevi fountain square on December 23, 2020. Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

According to Italian media, Friuli Venezia Giulia’s governor Massimiliano Fedriga has agreed to enforce the government’s ‘super green pass’ rules from Monday, allowing the region’s vaccinated population to bypass restrictions they would otherwise be subject to.

READ ALSO: Q&A: How will Italy’s new Covid ‘super green pass’ work?

Currently, ‘yellow zone’ restrictions require an area’s inhabitants to wear a mask both outdoors and in indoor public spaces, and restaurants can seat a maximum of four diners to a table.

While those in a yellow zone will still be required to mask up outdoors, under the new rules, people who hold the ‘super green pass’ will be able to access “indoor catering”, shows (such as theatre performances), parties, nightclubs, sporting events, and “public ceremonies”, as normal.

Other parts of the country currently expected to join Friuli Venezia Giulia in the yellow zone within the next couple of weeks are the autonomous province of Bolzano, which had 10 percent ICU and 15 percent general ward Covid patient occupancy rates as of November 24th; as well as Marche, Liguria, Lazio, Calabria, which all have figures approaching the threshold.

Some of Italy’s larger cities are putting into place their own preemptive strategies to try to contain their infection rates.

On Thursday, Milan’s mayor Giuseppe Sala said he was preparing to sign a measure making facemasks mandatory outdoors across the city center from the coming weekend, reports news agency Ansa.

And in Venice, mayor Luigi Brugnaro has already signed an order requiring the use of masks at Christmas markets and other large outdoor gatherings in the city, reports Sky TG 24.



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Government set to spend ‘a few hundred thousand’ before deciding on World Cup bid

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The Government expects to spend “a few hundred thousand” on scoping out a bid to host the 2030 football World Cup before deciding whether or not to proceed.

The estimate for the cost of deciding on officially proceeding with a bid along with the United Kingdom was provided to the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

The potential joint bid is being considered by both governments.

Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy raised questions about the cost of attracting major sporting events with senior officials from the Department of Tourism and Sport at the PAC on Thursday.

Funding for attracting major sporting events to Ireland will be €6.4 million next year after an extra €400,000 was allocated for this in the budget.

Cian Ó Lionáin, the department’s assistant secretary general for tourism and sport, has said that nothing has been spent on the World Cup proposal so far but there is a financial commitment to scoping out the possibility of a bid.

“We reckon that by next summer a few hundred thousand will have been spent on that. At that point Government will need to take the decision as to whether to proceed with the bid,” he said.

The Government has advertised for a “suitably qualified candidate” to lead Irish efforts as the proposal is being assessed.

The closing date applications for the role – where experience on the football field as an international player or coach is “desirable” – is Friday.

The successful candidate will not be paid but will see their expenses covered as they attend meetings of the board of the newly established company UK & Ireland 2030 Limited which will generally be held in Wembley.

The company is to complete a feasibility study and advise on whether there should be a bid and if a decision is taken to proceed, the company will pursue and oversee the process to its conclusion.

Ryder Cup

Mr Ó Lionáin said that €3.2 million has been spent so far on the 2027 Ryder Cup which is to be held in Adare Manor, Co Limerick.

The PAC was told that the Ryder Cup in 2006 – the last time the tournament was held in Ireland – was worth €143 million to the economy, €7 million more than the pre-event predictions.

A study also showed that more than 80 per cent of visitors on that occasion suggested they would return to Ireland in the future.

Ms Murphy also asked about spending on the proposal for Cork to host the America’s Cup yacht race.

Mr Ó Lionáin said the department is in the middle of a six-month assessment process on that event and that the “expenditure to date is effectively staff time”.

He said: “There will probably be some expenditure then on economic and other specific appraisals and the intention is to have that piece of work finished by the end of March, early April.”

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