A spike in the Delta variant of Covid-19 has led to fresh questions over Government plans to relax pandemic restrictions. But just what is going on?
Why are we talking about this now?
Until recently, the Delta variant accounted for a relatively small percentage of the Covid-19 cases being diagnosed in Ireland – around five per cent. However, on Monday, chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said there is a “concerning increase” in transmission of the variant, which is more infectious and resistant to incomplete courses of vaccines. On Tuesday, one coalition source said there was a sense of “deja vu” around, with the Government again faced with the rise of a new variant with increased transmissability, just like at the end of last year.
So is reopening off the cards?
No – or, at least, not yet. The Government has been very clear that as of now, the plan is to reopen indoor dining and drinking on July 5th, and international travel on July 19th. One cabinet source said today that there is “some concern” about Delta, but “not at the level that would halt reopening”. Taoiseach Micheál Martin has also said there are no plans to delay further reopening, and that it is “so far, so good”.
It’s all going to be fine then?
Not necessarily. While some in Government are bullish, there’s definitely an edge of nervousness creeping in as well. There is particular concern about cross-border transmission, with high levels of Delta found in Derry. The Government is anxious to keep to the timetable, but not at any cost. Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly was said to have struck a cautious note when updating the cabinet today. Across Government attention is shifting to the next advice due to issue from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet). Multiple sources agree: if they advise against reopening, it will be difficult for the coalition to forge ahead.
What happens next?
All this increases the focus on next week’s Nphet meeting, provisionally scheduled for Thursday, and the cabinet decisions that will follow. The rise in Delta diagnoses doesn’t automatically reverse recent positive momentum. Overall cases are low and the pressure on the hospital system isn’t significant. Our vaccine programme is more reliant on mRNA vaccines which have shown better protection after one dose against Delta. Meanwhile, a more conservative approach to spacing of doses of AstraZeneca and an accelerated rollout of this shot means we should get full AstraZeneca coverage by the end of next month. And, as Leo Varadkar said last week, the Government is unlikely to take Nphet’s advice on restricting travel to the vaccinated, so there remains a chance it could turn down other advice.
But – and there’s always a but – the Government is still haunted by the spectre of the meaningful Christmas. A delay now would help more complete cover among those receiving AstraZeneca, and potentially protect a lot of younger people not yet vaccinated who work in or will be using indoor dining. Any delay would lead to uproar from the hospitality sector, but the Government has been neither shy about providing payments for the sector or living with that backlash as background noise.
There is also a belief among senior sources that notwithstanding the volume of complaints from industry, people in general would accept a slightly slower reopening if it could be proven effective in controlling for a dangerous variant. The fact that this is happening during summer, when outdoor socialising and dining offer plenty of possibilities for people, might also favour a more cautious approach to reopening indoor dining. Meanwhile, the prospect of reopening leading to a surge in infection and perhaps some backsliding – if not a return to full lockdown – would undermine one of the Government’s key undertakings: that what reopens, stays open.
Three Cork publicans prepare to begin trade again
Pensioners who like to read the paper as they enjoy a few leisurely pints are the cohort most excited by the resumption of indoor service in pubs, according to a Cork city publican who has only traded for two weeks since March 2020.
Michael O’Donovan, who owns the Castle Inn, says his regulars have been phoning to check what time he is opening on Monday, with some saying they have not had a social outing since the start of the pandemic.
“We know all our regulars on a first-name basis. We have a man who comes in and has two or three pints on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. He will read the paper but he will watch the world go by at the same time,” he said.
“He will chat when he wants to chat. He is in his late 70s and he wouldn’t have been out [socially] in 15 months.”
Mr O’Donovan said it has been a surreal time but was hopeful that better days were coming.
“We will adapt and get on with all the changes we have to make with how we do business,” he said. “It is difficult in that we never wanted to be asking people about their health status. We have to be cautious but it is another step in getting life back to the way we knew it.”
‘It has been a struggle’
Danny Collins was looking forward to reopening the Boston Bar in Bantry, west Cork after a year of many sleepless nights due to worries about keeping the business afloat.
“I have been going through my savings to pay the mortgage as we were only open for a couple of weeks last year,” the independent councillor said.
“It has been a struggle. Of course there were other bills as well. To have your pub cameras, you had to pay the internet bill. I was also advised to keep my cooler system running. In the winter, I had to put on the heating.”
Mr Collins said he was apprehensive about all the different regulations that will have to be complied with as indoor service returns, such as staffing all entrances, and that finding employees had been a struggle for those in the sector.
“I think the PUP [Pandemic Unemployment Payment] should be reviewed at this point,” he said.
‘We can’t wait to open’
In Cork city, publican Ernest Cantillon will be opening Electric bar/restaurant and Sober Lane bar this week.
During the pandemic, he set up an online cocktail sales business and sold takeaway food, allowing him to keep a core team of about 15 people employed despite his business only opening as a traditional pub for a couple of weeks last year.
“We have also shifted to a new model of opening four evenings a week,” he said. “We are opening next Wednesday through Saturday and then staff will have three days off. That has been a key factor in staff retention and recruitment. We are going to give it a go. We can’t wait to open.”
Germany’s flood zones spared severe storms on Saturday
In the west of the country, the fire brigade reported a quiet night in the flood areas in Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine Westphalia.
The situation remains tense, however, with local thunderstorms forecast in some parts of Germany from midday on Sunday — most likely south of the Danube.
Further heavy rain and hail were also possible again, according to the German Weather Service (DWD), which publishes storm warnings.
The latest storms came just days after parts of the country were hit by devastating floods after torrential rains that ravaged entire villages and left 180 people dead, hundreds injured and with many still missing.
The flooding also caused damage in Belgium, where 37 people died, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
Prosecutors allege R Kelly had sexual contact with under-age boy
US prosecutors in R Kelly’s sex trafficking case say he had sexual contact with an under-age boy in addition to girls, and the government wants jurors in his upcoming sex-trafficking trial to hear those claims.
Federal prosecutors aired a wide-ranging raft of additional allegations – but not new charges – against the R&B singer in a court filing on Friday.
Jury selection is due to start August 9th in a New York federal court for Kelly, who denies ever abusing anyone.
The Grammy Award-winning singer is charged with leading what prosecutors call a criminal enterprise of managers, bodyguards and other employees who allegedly helped him to recruit women and girls for sex and pornography and to exercise control over them.
The charges involve six different women and girls, who are not named in court filings.
Now, prosecutors would also like jurors to hear about more than a dozen other people whom the government alleges that Kelly sexually or physically abused, threatened or otherwise mistreated.
Among them, the government says, was a 17-year-old boy and aspiring musician whom Kelly met at a McDonald’s in December 2006 and later invited to his Chicago studio.
According to the prosecutors’ court filing, after asking the boy what he would do to make it in the music business, Kelly propositioned and had sexual contact with him while he was still under-age.
And when Kelly was about to go on trial on child pornography charges in Chicago in 2008, the same youth told the singer he had access to a juror, and Kelly asked him to contact the juror and vouch he was a “good guy”, prosecutors wrote.
The filing does not say whether the youth did so. Kelly was acquitted in that case.
The boy also introduced Kelly to a 16- or 17-year-old male friend, with whom prosecutors say the singer began a sexual relationship several years later.
Kelly also filmed the two youths in sexual encounters with other people, including some of Kelly’s girlfriends, according to the filing.
Prosecutors wrote that the accounts of the boys and others would help show that the actual charges “were not isolated events and were part of a larger pattern”.
The multiplatinum-selling singer, born Robert Sylvester Kelly, is known for work including the 1996 hit I Believe I Can Fly and the cult classic Trapped In The Closet, a multi-part tale of sexual betrayal and intrigue.
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