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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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Officials pushed for State to buy direct provision centres from private firms

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The Government should buy a number of privately-owned direct provision centres as a “priority” as it would be more “cost effective” for the State to run the facilities for asylum seekers, international protection officials have said.

The savings arising from owning the accommodation centres rather than paying private contractors to do so “could be considerable”, departmental briefing documents provided to Minister for Children and Integration Roderic O’Gorman last year state.

The vast majority of direct provision centres are currently owned and run by private companies, with accommodation providers having received some €1.6 billion since 1999, including €183 million last year.

The latest figures show some 7,150 people are in the system of seven State-owned sites and 39 private centres. A further 24 commercially-owned premises are being used to provide emergency accommodation for asylum seekers.

The briefing document, released to The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act, says that housing people seeking asylum in State-owned centres would provide the “best protection from the vulnerability of present market reliance”.

“They are also much more cost efficient to run, and the State owns the asset,” it notes.

The document suggested that State centres should aim to accommodate 5,000 people, and “allowing the private sector to supply the rest is regarded as an achievable and reasonable target”.

The purchase of existing centres from private providers “to immediately boost the State’s footprint in this area should be considered as a priority,” the internal document said.

“Some service providers may be open to this and the market appears to be favourable at present,” it said.

The internal briefing suggested the department could then seek private companies or NGOs to run the centres, which would be a “competitive cost option”.

‘Badly needed’

Ongoing maintenance for centres owned by the State was also “badly needed,” as current pressures on the Office of Public Works (OPW) meant it was not possible “for immediate repairs to be done if required”.

“In exploring the model of more State centres, we need to agree and acquire a capital budget,” the briefing stated.

“State land does not require planning permission for new centres as the Minister has a power under the Acts, whereby the OPW can grant the planning permission and this is usually a three-month process. It is not subject to appeal.”

The document says that State centres “can also have a bigger footprint as it will be a permanent fixture in the locality”. In recent years a number of plans for private providers to open direct provision centres in regional towns have been met with protests from locals and anti-immigration activists.

Mr O’Gorman’s department has sought to reform the direct provision system and is seeking to replace the network of centres with a new system of accommodation and supports by the end of 2024.

New centres

A department spokesman confirmed the State has not bought any new centres since the briefing note was written. The spokesman said under the planned overhaul of direct provision, asylum-seekers who arrived into the country would initially be housed in a number of reception and integration centres.

Asylum-seekers will spend a maximum of four months in the reception centres before moving into housing secured through Approved Housing Bodies.

“These centres will be State-owned and purpose built to provide suitable accommodation for approximately 2,000 people at any one time, to cater for the flow-through of the 3,500 applicants over a 12-month period,” he said.


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IN PICTURES: French daredevil takes hair-raising Seine tightrope walk

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Attached by a strap to a safety lanyard, 27-year-old Nathan Paulin slowly progressed barefoot on a line stretched across the river between the Eiffel Tower and the Chaillot Theatre.

He stopped for a few breaks, sitting or lying on the rope.

Paulin holds an umbrella as he performs, for the second time, on a 70-metre-high slackline spanning 670 metres between the Eiffel Tower and the Theatre National de Chaillot. (Photo by Sameer Al-DOUMY / AFP)

“It wasn’t easy walking 600 metres, concentrating, with everything around, the pressure … but it was still beautiful,” he said after the performance on Saturday.

He said obtaining the necessary authorisations had been a difficulty for him, plus “the stress linked to the audience, the fact that there are a lot of people”.

Photo: (Photo by THOMAS COEX / AFP)

Paulin, holder of several world records, performed the feat to celebrate France’s annual Heritage Day – when people are invited to visit historic buildings and monuments that are usually closed to the public.

He said his motivation was “mainly to do something beautiful and to share it and also to bring a new perspective on heritage, it is to make heritage come alive”.

He had already crossed the River Seine on a tightrope, on Heritage Day in 2017.



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The truth about Ireland’s monster €240bn debt: it wasn’t the banks

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There’s a perception that Ireland’s monster debt – it will be €240 billion by the end of the year, on a per capita basis the third highest in the world, was put there by band of rogue bankers. And that we as a people have been victims of a terrible wrong.

The truth of course is more sticky, more unpalatable than the bar stool narratives we tell ourselves.

Most of the debt – more than €100 billion – arose from a sequence of budget deficits run up in the wake of the 2008 financial crash and linked to then government’s mismanagement of the public finances, a government that we voted into office three times in succession.

The former Fianna Fáil-led administration had spent lavishly in 2000s while using windfall taxes from the property sector to plug the holes in its accounts.

Deficit

When these taxes dried up, the deficit ballooned. At the height of the crisis in 2009 the deficit was €23 billion. That meant the State was spending €23 billion more than it was taking in by way of taxes and other income.

This necessitated borrowing on a grand scale, which went on – to a varying extent – for a decade until the State ran a budget surplus in 2018.

The original cost of bailing out the banks was €64 billion but this has been clawed back to around €40 billion by way of levies, dividends and share selloffs arising out of the State’s ownership of the banks.

It’s a big number, but less than half the bill foisted upon us from budgetary mismanagement, none of which can be clawed back.

On a per capita basis, the State’s debt figure equates to €46,000 for every man, woman and child in the State and €103,300 for every worker.

And the cost of servicing it has cost us €60 billion over the past decade: equivalent to three years of health spending. Make no mistake the State is paying for its boom time folly.

So it behoves us to sit up and listen when the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council (Ifac) sounds a note of caution about the Government’s budgetary strategy, particularly when it claims we’re sailing close to unsustainable debt trajectory.

And not to dismiss the council’s critique, as some do, as an act of fiscal pedantry, far removed from the realpolitik of government.

While the €4.2 billion spending hike earmarked for Budget 2022 is broadly welcomed, the council takes issue with the Government’s medium-term budgetary strategy, which envisages a series of much bigger budget deficits out to 2025 and nearly €19 billion in additional borrowing.

Debt

This will leave the State with a bigger and less manageable debt up the line and therefore more exposed to the next crisis. There was now a one in four chance of the national debt moving on to an unsustainable trajectory in the years ahead, it said.

The council also warned that borrowing and ramping up spending during a strong recovery could “backfire” triggering an acceleration in prices if capacity constraints, most notably in the construction sector, bite.

You would think that as a country with a big debt, the chief threat here is rising interest rates, something that is likely to arise if the current pick-up in inflation proves longer than expected.

Ifac has stress-tested the Irish economy against possible interest rate hikes and growth shocks, finding the latter poses a greater problem.

While a big 2 percentage point shock to the Government’s borrowing costs would add just 0.4 percentage points to the debt ratio in three years it would barely raise annual funding costs. This is largely because the National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA) bond issuance is long-dated and, in the main, fixed rate.

In contrast a typical growth shock of 3.6 per cent for two years could add over 20 percentage points to the debt ratio in three years. “With high debt ratios to begin with, this could snowball and make it difficult to pull down debt ratios in later years,” it said.

Plan

Two years ago, NTMA chief Conor O’Kelly was asked what the chief financial risks facing the agency were and if it had a Brexit contingency plan.

He said the agency operated on “permanent contingency” basis . As a small, highly-indebted economy, which relies on international investors for 90 per cent of its borrowings, he said Ireland and the NTMA needed to be in a permanent state of crisis readiness.

The reality is that the next shock, the next thing that will hit our funding market, will probably be something that we have not yet thought of and is not on the front page of every newspaper in the world, O’Kelly said. Nine months later, the Covid crisis hit and the global economy fell off a cliff and the NTMA’s borrowing plans were out the window.

This goes to the heart of Ifac’s commentary: it’s not a case of wondering if there will be another recession or if there will be another financial shock, that’s a given, they’re coming on average every 10 years.

Downturns are part of the natural cycle, financial shocks are part of the global economy. The question is, will you be in a position to borrow and spend your way out of it.


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