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‘Really early days’ on Omicron reduced hospitalisation evidence

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Almost half of the adult population has had the Covid-19 booster vaccine, the Taoiseach has said.

Micheál Martin said 49.9 per cent of adults or 37.4 per cent of the total population had received their boosters. In a tweet he said 303,000 vaccines had been given in the past three days and praised the work of staff and volunteers in vaccine centres, GPs and pharmacists.

It comes as the health service pushes to get people boosted ahead of the Omicron wave.

The HS Echief executive said studies on the Omicron variant were welcome news but there were always qualifiers and it was “really early days” with regard to evidence, The key finding in the Edinburgh research was reduced hospitalisations with this variant, but the concern was the volume of cases which could still put severe strain on hospitals. The early evidence was positive, but it was still a highly transmissible virus, Paul Reid said on RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland

The HSE’s chief clinical officer Colm Henry said even though early indications were that there was a reduction in hospitalisations from the Omicron variant, it was still unknown what level of hospitalisations would be likely to need intensive care treatment, he said.

Dr Henry said there was some initial cause for optimism for reports from South Africa that indicated the Omicron variant caused less severe symptoms. But the newer data had to be scrutinised, he said.

Efforts by the public in recent weeks had helped stabilise figures, but the numbers were going up again because of the Omicron variant, he warned. “We’ve learned a hard lesson about not acting early.”

Covid-19 would eventually become endemic, he said and regular vaccines will become a part of life. “It is endemic now, we are dealing with a variant that is highly transmissible.

“This is an extraordinary surge of a variant that only came to light in South Africa in late November. No system anywhere in the world could absorb the demands in that short time.”

Dr Henry has expressed concern about exhausted healthcare staff. He urged the public to “do your bit” – to stay at home, reduce socialisation and get the booster vaccine – to help reduce cases.

Speaking on RTÉ radio’s Today with Claire Byrne show, Dr Henry said that the number of staff absent from work in relation to Covid had reduced from 5,000 to 3,000.

However, he said he was concerned about staff who were exhausted and the constant vigilance under which they had to work, the time it took to don PPE gear, how they had to physically distance themselves. “It is very difficult.”

Boosters

Earlier Mr Reid has said that in his personal view the policy of “encouraging and cajoling” people to get vaccinated was the better approach.

Speaking on Newstalk Breakfast and RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland, Mr Reid pointed out that 94 percent of the population over the age of 18 had been vaccinated. “We’ve done extraordinarily well.”

However, he acknowledged that 54 percent of the patients in ICU had not been vaccinated, “that’s from six percent of the population.” It was important for people to come forward to be vaccinated to stop this “disproportionate impact”.

Every week there were 17,000 to 20,000 people coming forward for their first and second doses and the HSE was continuing to work with vulnerable groups and NGOs in a bid to reduce vaccine hesitancy.

Mr Reid said that this time last year 87,000 PCR tests were carried out, this year that figure was 220,000 and would continue to grow, probably to 300,000. On December 26th last year the first batch of 9,750 doses of vaccine arrived into the country, yesterday 109,000 doses were administered.

Meanwhile the Government is moving to exempt key workers in public services and utilities from self-isolation requirements in some circumstances as fears grow about the impact of the Omicron wave on essential services.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has asked officials to draw up “immediate contingency planning for the coming period, including risks associated with Covid-19- related absenteeism”, his spokesman said on Wednesday evening.

“Each sector will assess and plan to mitigate risks of transmission and absenteeism affecting critical services or infrastructure. The identification of critical workers/work areas will continue to inform close contact rules and any derogations which might apply,” the spokesman said.

With 6,307 new cases announced on Wednesday evening, officials believe the Omicron variant is now beginning to show up in daily case numbers. Sources across Government expect that significant numbers of cases will be diagnosed in the next number of weeks – upwards of 10,000 a day. If close contacts are forced to isolate it could put pressure on services.

There are already derogations in place within the health service for key staff, but Government sources said the Coalition wants to examine derogations for other key workers like gardaí, fire service personnel, prison officers and those involved in infrastructure and public utilities, such as water services and power supply.

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Dog-owners bite back at beach rules

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Following a series of reports that An Taisce is leading the battle to ban dogs from the State’s 83 blue-flag beaches, the organisation’s Ian Diamond is feeling misunderstood.

“I don’t hate dogs”, Mr Diamond says, pointing out that Blue Flag International – the global body which governs the coveted awards – warned last year that some qualifying beaches were not honouring long-standing rules.

Under what’s known as Criterion 23, the rules declare that beach access “by dogs and other domestic animals must be strictly controlled” and that they be allowed only in “the parking areas, walkways and promenades in the inland beach areas”.

Faced with the reminder, Mr Diamond said he requested last year that local authorities get more time, as it was “not something that can be introduced immediately in the middle of a pandemic when people are under other restrictions.

“You can’t exactly introduce these things overnight, so we were flagging that,” he said, adding that Blue Flag told them to speak to people seeking blue flag status and “come back with proposals” that comply with the rule.

The issue came to national attention following a meeting of Kerry County Council this week, though it was understood then that the rule was an An Taisce demand, rather than being a Blue Flag International obligation.

Dogs and horses

Consequently, Kerry County Council now propose that dogs or horses will not be allowed on blue-flag beaches from 11am-7pm between June 1st and September 15th, or otherwise the county could lose its 14 blue flags.

However, the restrictions are unpopular with some dog-owners: “There’s a lot more important things to be worrying about than dogs on a beach,” said David Walsh, as he walked his pet, Oreo, on Salthill beach.

Dog-owners in Salthill are already not allowed to bring their dogs onto the beach between 9am and 8pm between May 1st and September 30th each year, in line with Blue Flag International’s rules, though penalties are rare.

Mr Diamond says a national application of the rules at blue-flag beaches would not “strictly prohibit dogs being on the beach” during bathing season, outside of peak hours.

Bathing season

“The blue-flag criteria would apply from June 1st to September 15th, within peak usage hours, so bathing hours – that would be mid-morning to early evening,” said the An Taisce officer.

“What it requires is that there would be rules in place in relation to dogs that say [they] should not be in the blue-flag area within those hours and within the bathing season,” Mr Diamond said.

The restriction is based on public health grounds and dates back to 2003: “Dog faeces actually contain a lot of the micro-organisms that cause illness in the same way that human waste would,” he said.

“There’s no zero-tolerance approach to this. If rules are going to be brought in, then people will be consulted as well, you know, brought in unilaterally, and it’s down to the councils responsible for the beaches to bring those in.”

Not everyone disagrees with An Taisce, or Blue Flag: “I don’t think dogs should be on the beach, because of the kids and all that. And a lot of people don’t pick up their poo afterwards,” said a man on Salthill beach.

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Jail for banned motorist from Limerick caught driving on Christmas shopping trip to Belfast

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A banned motorist from Limerick caught driving on a Christmas shopping trip to Belfast has been jailed for seven months.

Police also discovered three of Leeanne McCarthy’s children not wearing seat belts when her car was stopped on the Westlink dual carriageway.

The 41-year-old mother-of-eight initially gave officers a false identity, prosecutors said.

Belfast Magistrates’ Court heard a PSNI patrol car stopped the Ford Focus on November 26th last year.

McCarthy, with an address at Clonlough in Limerick, provided a different name and claimed she did not have her licence with her.

However, checks revealed that a month earlier she had been banned from driving for five years.

A Crown lawyer said: “Three young children were in the rear of the vehicle, none of them wearing seat belts.”

McCarthy initially claimed they only removed the safety restraints when the car came to a halt, the court heard.

Police were told that she took over driving duties from another daughter who had been tired and nearly crashed the vehicle.

McCarthy was convicted of driving while disqualified, having no insurance, obstructing police and three counts of carrying a child in the rear of a vehicle without a seat belt.

Her barrister, Turlough Madden, said she had travelled to Belfast for Christmas shopping.

Counsel told the court McCarthy spent the festive period in custody, missing out on sharing it with her eight children and four grandchildren.

“That’s been a wake-up call and significant punishment for her,” Mr Madden submitted.

“She is a mother who simply wants to go back to Limerick and not return to Northern Ireland.”

Sentencing McCarthy to five months imprisonment for the new offences, District Judge George Conner imposed a further two months by activating a previous suspended term.

Mr Conner also affirmed the five-year disqualification period and fined her £300 (€350) for the seat belt charges.

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Suspects in UK citing ‘inhuman’ Irish jails to try halt extradition

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Criminal suspects abroad who are wanted by the Irish authorities are attempting to prevent their extradition on grounds of “inhuman” prison conditions here.

A number of legal challenges have been taken in the UK on such grounds since the extradition system was overhauled last year as a result of Brexit.

Most of the challenges are based on reports of overcrowding and “slopping out” – the manual emptying of containers used as toilets in cells overnight – in the Irish prison system.

Although none have been successful to date, in at least one case the Irish authorities have been required to offer assurances that a prisoner would not be forced to “slop out” in order to secure their extradition.

The case, which was finalised in the Scottish High Court last week, concerned a man wanted in Ireland for several domestic abuse-type offences. The man objected to his extradition on the basis that he may be forced to “slop out” or have to use the toilet in open view in front of cell mates in an Irish prison.

He cited a 2020 Council of Europe report which found the “degrading” practice of “slopping out” was still present in some prisons despite efforts by the authorities to abolish it.

Toilet dignity

The report also found almost half of the prison population still have to use the toilet in the presence of other prisoners.

A Scottish judge said such a system would carry “at least a strong presumption” of a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

However, after receiving a letter from a senior official in the Irish Director of Public Prosecutions’ (DPP) office that the suspect would not have to slop out during any prison sentence, the extradition was approved.

“The Irish Prison Service has confirmed that [the suspect] will not be placed in conditions where he is required to ‘slop out’ – either on remand or in the event that he is committed to a term of imprisonment,” the DPP official wrote.

The issue of prison conditions is one of a number of obstacles faced by the State in extraditing suspects to and from Ireland post-Brexit.

After the final withdrawal of the UK from the EU in January 2021, the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) system, which allowed for the rapid and simplified extraditions of prisoners to and from the UK, was replaced by a new system laid out in the Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA) struck between the EU and UK.

Post-Brexit uncertainty

In recent times, there were about 90 outgoing extradition warrants issued by Ireland per year, with about 70 per cent of those going to the UK. In 2021, that figure dropped by about half amid legal uncertainties surrounding the new system.

Officials in the DPP’s office had anticipated such issues may arise under the new system and sought to fast track as many extraditions as possible before its implementation. In 2020, it applied for about 180 extradition warrants, double the usual figure, ahead of the final withdrawal of the UK from the EU.

The new TCA system has also been subject to objections by suspects in Ireland wanted by the UK authorities. Last year, the Supreme Court referred two cases to the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) where the applicants claimed they could not be handed over the UK under the new system.

In November, the CJEU ruled the TCA system allows the men to be extradited. The ruling was a source of considerable relief to officials in the offices of the Attorney-General and the Chief State Solicitor as it was seen as a vindication of the new system.


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