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How Italy plans to avoid tightening Covid restrictions this summer despite rising cases

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A look at Italy’s latest Covid-19 data is alarming: 5,143 new infections in the past 24 hours alone, more than double the daily rate a week ago. 

The Rt number, a figure that indicates how many others a person infected will pass the virus on to, has risen above 1, the key threshold beyond which transmission becomes difficult to control. According to the latest weekly report by Italy’s Higher Health Institute (ISS), the national Rt stood at 1.26 by July 18th and is believed to have risen since then.

The incidence rate is also increasing sharply, from 19 cases per 100,000 people in Italy the previous week to 41 cases per 100,000 now.

On the island of Sardinia, one of Italy’s most popular summer holiday spots, the regional Rt is as high as 2.24, having doubled from the week before, while the incidence rate is also Italy’s highest at 82.8 new cases per 100,000 residents.

Despite these indicators, the government is hopeful that it can avoid reimposing the restrictions that have limited travel, businesses and events for much of the past 18 months as Italy moves into its peak holiday season.

Its strategy, announced last night by Prime Minister Mario Draghi and Health Minister Roberto Speranza, is two-pronged. First, Italy will significantly expand the use of its Covid-19 health pass, making it compulsory to eat at restaurants indoors, visit museums, attend concerts or sports events and more.

EXPLAINED: When, where and why will you need a Covid health passport in Italy?

“This summer is already peaceful and we want it to remain so,” Draghi told a press conference. “The green pass is a measure that allows Italians to continue running their own businesses, having fun, going to restaurants, attending shows outdoors or indoors, all with the guarantee of being among people who are not contagious.

“In that sense it’s a measure that, though presenting some difficulties in terms of application, gives peace of mind, not one that takes it away.”

While the health passport can also be claimed by anyone who has recently tested negative for the coronavirus or recovered from Covid-19, the easiest way to get a pass that doesn’t have to be repeatedly renewed is to get vaccinated.

Most of Italy’s new infections are among people who are unvaccinated, according to the ISS, which says that cases are ten times lower in people who have had both doses of a Covid vaccine. Infection rates are currently rising sharply among people under 30, who were the last age group in line for a jab and the least likely to have had both shots.

Prime Minister Draghi put it bluntly: “No vaccines mean a new lockdown.

Photo by Roberto MONALDO / POOL / AFP

At the same time, the government has changed the way it decides Italy’s regional restrictions – the system of tiered ‘risk zones’ ranging from white (low) to red (high).

All of Italy’s 20 regions have been white zones since the end of June, allowing every part of the country to relax the rules on wearing masks outdoors, reopen theme parks, cultural centres and indoor swimming pools, and restart weddings and trade fairs.

Until now, any region that recorded more than 50 infections per 100,000 inhabitants in a seven-day period for three weeks in a row risked returning to the slightly more restrictive yellow zone, something local businesses are keen to avoid as summer tourism resumes in earnest.

With Italy’s national weekly incidence rate beginning to approach that threshold and four regions – Sardinia, Veneto, Lazio and Sicily – already over it, the government has once again changed the parameters for remaining a white zone, after already revising them in May to make white-zone status more attainable

Under the previous criteria, “many regions would have become yellow because the previous parameters would have been exceeded”, Draghi explained. Instead the government chose “to introduce the green pass [and] change the parameters in such a way as to keep the regions in the white zone, but with the green pass”. 

READ ALSO: Can tourists use Italy’s Covid health pass to access museums, concerts and indoor dining?

Now the main factor it considers will be hospital occupancy, which up to this point in Italy’s fourth wave has remained relatively low despite the rapid surge in cases. 

Under the new rules, regions can remain white even if their incidence rate tops 50 per 100,000 residents, so long as the percentage of hospital beds occupied by Covid-19 patients does not go over 15 percent – or no more than 10 percent of intensive care beds are full. 

Regions that cross either of these thresholds become yellow, while regions with more than 150 cases per 100,000 people and hospital occupancy of 30 percent, or intensive care occupancy of 20 percent, become orange.

Regions where 40 percent of hospital beds, or 40 percent of intensive care beds, are occupied go into the red zone with maximum restrictions on movement and businesses, close to a form of lockdown. 

Photo by Marco Bertorello / AFP

Nationally, hospital and intensive care occupancy are currently both at around 2 percent, according to the latest weekly ISS report.

Some regional rates are already approaching or over 5 percent, however, including Calabria with 5.7 percent of hospital beds occupied, Sicily with 5.2 percent and Campania with 4.8 percent. Tuscany has the highest percentage of intensive care occupancy (3.4 percent), followed by Sicily (3.3 percent) and Lazio (3 percent). 

While the highly contagious Delta variant – thought to be the factor driving the rapid rise in infection in Italy as in other countries around Europe – has had little impact so far on Italy’s hospital admissions, the example of the United Kingdom suggests that a rise in more serious cases of Covid-19 can’t be ruled out. 

Hospitalisation rates in the UK, where Delta has been the dominant strain of the coronavirus since at least early June, have increased sharply from around 13 per million people at the end of May to 58 per million by mid-July. 

Health experts expected Delta to become the dominant variant in Italy by the end of July, if not before. 

The Italian government is hoping that the combination of the expanded health pass scheme together with the revised white zone criteria will keep all of Italy in the lowest-risk category for most of August – Italy’s busiest month both for international tourist arrivals as well as for domestic holiday bookings.



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Property group clashes with council over Dundrum residential development

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The owners of Dundrum Town Centre have clashed with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown council over demands for more large apartments as they advance fast-track plans for a major residential development in the south Dublin village.

Property group Hammerson and insurer Allianz, which operate the new shopping complex in the area, have been in talks with An Bord Pleanála to build up to 889 apartments on the site of the old Dundrum shopping centre.

Their company, Dundrum Retail Ltd Partnership, has told the council it should scrap new requirements for “a minimum of three-plus bedroom units” in large apartment blocks that are included among proposed amendments to its draft county development plan.

In a submission last week to the council, the company said the new guidelines were in conflict with official rules that said there should be no minimum requirement for apartments with three or more bedrooms.

According to the company, the justification for the guidelines was based on fast-track strategic housing development permissions in the council area and “evidence” from certain boroughs in London.

“[Dundrum Retail Ltd Partnership] submit that the logic underpinning the policy is flawed and is not a basis for imposing prescriptive unit mix ratios on a countywide basis,” it said.

“The draft development plan needs to be amended to remove the very prescriptive requirement for apartments with three or more bedrooms and to allow applicants to make the case for a particular unit mix based on the particular attributes of local areas where a different mix might be appropriate.”

The company also told the council that proposed amendments to the development plan presented “contradictory or ambiguous objectives” in relation to proposals for a community, cultural and civic centre in the area.

Such objections were included among 106 submissions on the draft plan in a public consultation which closed last week. Numerous other developers and the Irish Home Builders Association lobby group also opposed the measures, some saying they would delay or prevent the delivery of new homes.

Asked about the submissions, the council said the response to any issues raised would be set out in a report by its chief executive to elected members which would be published. “It will be a decision of the elected members to adopt the plan and it is anticipated that this will take place in early March 2022. The plan will then come into effect six weeks later,” the council said.

Cost increase

In its submission, the Irish Home Builders Association said its members were concerned that the introduction of “further onerous standards” would increase the cost of delivering new homes and their price.

“This at a time when construction costs are already under huge inflationary pressure and affordability is a major issues for most home buyers,” said James Benson, director of the association.

“A key concern of the home-building sector in respect of the new plan is a lack of consistency with national planning guidelines/standards, which may be considered to be contrary to recent Government policy which sought to bring a greater extent of standardisation to national planning standards.”

The submission added: “The key concerns relate to the locational restriction and unit mix requirements for [build-to-rent] schemes, other standards for apartment developments which are more onerous/restrictive than the Government’s… guidelines, and the requirement for early delivery of childcare facilities in residential developments, all of which have the potential to impact adversely on the viability and affordability of housing in the county.”

Another builder, Park Developments, said in a submission the draft sought “more onerous policies, objectives and standards” that would have a direct effect on housing supply. “We are already seeing the impact of the chronic shortage in the supply of housing on the affordability of rental accommodation and homeownership.”

Castlethorn Construction said the blanket imposition of three-bedroom requirements “can only serve to militate against development of apartments” in the council area. It said the cost of delivering three-bed apartments was “very significant”, adding that demand was “not evident by reference to market sentiment, estate agents’ advice” and national policy imperatives.

Developer Hines, which has major interests in the Cherrywood strategic development zone, said in its submission that the logic underpinning requirements for more three-bedroom units was flawed.

“While making the case that recent development has been weighted towards one- and two-bed units, it fails to recognise that three-bed semi-detached and detached houses remain the predominant typology within [Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown] and that the [strategic housing development] permissions provide a much-needed mix of housing types within the county to redress this balance within the county.”


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Laicisation of Catholic priest in Tipperary causes disappointment and anger in parish

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Standing in the family’s hardware store on Main Street in Carrick-on-Suir, Fiona Hearn remembers how Fr Richard Geoghegan gave her son First Holy Communion 15 years ago.

Today, Geoghegan is no longer a priest, following the Vatican’s decision to issue a laicisation order, with the history of the story up to that point a subject of disagreement.

The former parish priest at Ballyneale and past curate at St Nicholas Parish in Carrick-On-Suir announced on Twitter last week that he had been officially “dismissed by Rome” on January 7th.

“My Bishop was happy to dispense me. I’m a good man. And he talks about the shortage of vocations,” said Geoghegan, who entered the seminary in 1987 aged just 19, and he was ordained six years later.

The Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, Phonsie Cullinan, whose diocese extends over both the borders of Tipperary and Cork, has rejected Geoghegan’s charges.

Fr Richard Geoghegan
Fr Richard Geoghegan

Geoghegan had petitioned Pope Francis for laicisation last March and it was granted on December 15th, said the bishop: “I wish to acknowledge and thank Richard for his pastoral ministry over the years and wish him well for the future.”

Geoghegan came under fire from conservative Catholics following an appearance on hotelier Francis Brennan’s RTÉ show Grand Tour of Vietnam in 2017, wherein he performed in drag as singer Shirley Bassey, wearing a blonde wig and lipstick.

The TV appearance might not have done him any favours, Hearn accepts. “He is only human at the end of the day. He is well loved here in town. We’d love to have him back. I’d have nothing but deep respect for him,” she says.

“He is a real people’s person. Some older priests could be aloof. You couldn’t meet a nicer, more down to earth man. I think he has been pretty hard done by the Pope and the bishop.”

Hearn is not alone in her feelings, with many members of the tight-knit Catholic churchgoing community in Carrick-On-Suir and surrounding districts still shocked and disappointed by the turn of events.

Despite the bishop’s declaration that Geoghegan had himself applied to be laicised, the Association of Catholic Priests’ Tim Hazelwood describes his treatment as “inappropriate, unreasonable and unacceptable”.

In 2020, Hazelwood accompanied Geoghegan to a meeting with Bishop Cullinan, and his secretary.

“It was obvious from the meeting that he wanted Richard to apply for laicisation,” Hazelwood says. “That’s when Richard said he would have liked to be a curate…Richard found it difficult being on his own in a parish. He needed support,” Hazelwood adds.

“Obviously, the bishop had made up his mind,” says Hazelwood, “I was shocked, really because the majority of bishops would be supportive, but what I was hearing was really a put down.”

Geoghegan declined to comment when contacted.

Former parishioner, John Nolan said, “The Church is crying out for priests and is leaving a good man go. He was friends with everyone, an absolute gentleman. Anyone having a wedding here would look for him. I think it is all down to Bishop Phonsie. ”

Describing him as “a fantastic priest”, Carrick-on-Suir butcher Morris Whelan says was a great man. “He knew everyone by name. You’d meet him once and he knew your name forever. He was involved in the parish in every part of it.”

Local Sinn Féin councillor David Dunne remembers Geoghegan’s kindnesses during his mother’s illness.

“Everyone recognised him for the programme he did with Francis Brennan…It was fairly flamboyant and wasn’t in keeping with the Church, but it was typical of Fr Richard,” said Cllr Dunne, “He was always friendly, outgoing and is well-regarded. It is a major loss.”

Describing the former priest’s ability to engage, Luke Foran says: “One of my favourite memories of him is my brother’s Communion where he had all the kids gathered around and Richard’s phone rang, and who was on the phone only ‘Jesus’.

“You should have seen the kids’ faces drop. It was brilliant and he enthralled and captivated the whole place. He was ahead of his time. Richard humanised the priesthood and was a breath of fresh air,” he said.

Besides the memories, there is anger, too. Ashling Ní Fháthaigh said: “When he was saying mass the church was a lot fuller with a younger congregation. (He) was liked by so many and was punished for that.”

Believing that the church’s hierarchy has questions to answers, Margaret Croke says: “A church without compassion and understanding who can so readily dismiss a person who was so dedicated for so many years to its flock and to God really needs to change.”

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IRA victims will need to be persuaded to vote for a united Ireland, says Eastwood

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Many people who were victims of IRA violence during the Troubles will have to be persuaded to vote for a united Ireland, the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has said.

A lot of unionist people had “serious hurt and pain because of what the IRA did”, he maintained, as the Bloody Sunday families had been hurt and traumatised by the actions of the British army 50 years ago.

Mr Eastwood told a meeting of Ireland’s Future in Derry that unionists will need a lot of persuading of the merits of a united Ireland.

“We have to be realistic about this. We have to convince a lot of people who don’t currently want to vote for a united Ireland to vote for it,” he said.

“I don’t believe we can do this without dealing with the proper legacy of the past. It has to be about the future, but it does not go away. We have learned that after 20 years of the Good Friday Agreement, it affects the current politics and will infect this debate in ways that I don’t think we are prepared for.

“I believe in truth and justice. I want it from the British Government and I want it from the IRA as well.”

Opportunity

Sinn Féin MLA Declan Kearney said his party was committed to addressing the legacy of the past.

“In the context of a new constitutional arrangement on this island, we need to put reconciliation and healing at the core of our political and civic institutions,” he said.

“Irish unity is the defining issue of our generation. We need to find common ground across the greatest cross-section of political and civic society. This is going to be a societal endeavour. Politicians cannot and should not deliver constitutional change.”

Irish Examiner journalist Aoife Grace Moore, whose uncle Patrick Doherty, was murdered on Bloody Sunday, said her life was shaped by the Troubles though she is part of the ceasefire generation.

“It is up to my generation – we have the opportunity to make a real difference in the North,” she said.

“I am not really interested in a conversation about flags and anthems. That is completely missing the point. I would like to talk about giving young people better outcomes and lifting them out of poverty.

“The brain drain of people from the young people leaving the North is devastating and it was not supposed to be this way.”

Queens University Belfast Prof Colin Harvey told the meeting that Ireland’s Future will be publishing a major document presently about the health services in both jurisdiction.

He has been criticised by some Brexit-supporting unionists for advocating for a united Ireland, but he said academics should be involved in the major issues facing society.

“I have a very strong belief that academics should not just sit in libraries and they should not be fearful for doing so,” he said.

“We want to get this right. Nobody wants a situation where where people are painting lies on the sides of buses. People want an evidenced-based planned approach to constitutional change.”

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