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In a vaccinated New York, we look forward to the day we can travel to Ireland

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Mark O’Toole is a UCD graduate from Bray, Co Wicklow, where his family used to own the Harbour Bar. He has lived and worked in New York City for almost 25 years. He is currently making a documentary about life in the city under Covid-19 and his experiences during there during the pandemic. He is a writer and producer based in New York

The sunlight is intense today, with discernable beams filling any gaps afforded by the towering trees of Central Park. Nature is in full bloom; daffodils bright yellow against the green grass, the cherry blossom trees a resplendent pink, adding a splash of colour against the blue sky. Ducks waddle to and fro before eventually taking to the pond. Voices are audible. Children are playing and laughing. Joggers trundle past. A crystal blue sky serves as the canopy for the scene. Life in NYC is back.

Mark O’Toole and his wife Anosha celebrate their son Aidan’s sixth birthday with their daughter Alanna
Mark O’Toole and his wife Anosha celebrate their son Aidan’s sixth birthday with their daughter Alanna

All of this is in stark contrast to a year ago. I documented that grim scene for Irish Times Abroad. New York’s huddled masses yearning to breathe safe were either locked away indoors or had simply packed up and left the Big Apple for less affected areas. And the statistics were on their side. NYC faced mounting death tolls. On some days close to 1,000 deaths were added to the tally; one of them a family member.

Early on little was known about how the virus was transmitted. So, out of an abundance of caution or irrational fear, deliveries were wiped down with disinfectant, with whatever Lysol disinfectant wipes that could be found. We worried about food shortages, toilet paper became the coin of the realm, homeschooling became the new normal. And we wondered if our government was lying to us. A crisis within a crisis.

We still wear masks and practise social distancing. New Yorkers are not yet ready to refill Yankee Stadium. So there’s no euphoria, but there is cautious optimism

Then, on the way to the apocalypse, a funny thing happened. Around the end of June last year, some green shoots were spotted. Shops, hairdressers and restaurants started to open outdoors. My birthday this February was celebrated outside during a snow storm. Heat lamps worked in conjunction with alcohol to either warm my freezing toes or simply forget about them.

NYC has recently allowed 75 per cent in-person dining. Cinemas are open. Museums are open. There are no travel restrictions. I’m able to get my daily 10-mile run in without obstruction. A full re-opening is expected July 1st – fittingly, just in time for Independence day.

But these freedoms were hard to come by. Some 50,000 people died from Covid in New York state. So there is no going back to the old ways. We still wear masks and practise social distancing. New Yorkers are not yet ready to refill Citi Field or Yankee Stadium. So there’s no euphoria, but there is cautious optimism. Ireland may be a low ebb right now. Over a year into this pandemic, we are all fatigued. But help is on the way. Vaccines are being rolled out.

Mark O’Toole celebrating his birthday outside in February 2021 during a snowstorm
Mark O’Toole celebrating his birthday outside in February 2021 during a snowstorm

What a difference a year makes. The new Biden administration has started the process of restoring faith in good government and the American “can do” spirit. The entire response has been a testament to American ingenuity, enabling development and delivery of all new vaccines in under a year. Everyone in New York who is at least 12 years old and up is eligible for a shot. I’ve just had my second shot of the Moderna vaccine.

But the best laid plans of mice and men almost went awry. The day I was scheduled to get my first shot, my family attended a close friend’s St Patrick’s Day back garden brunch. It was two couples and their kids. It was a beautiful warm day and we spent it mostly outdoors, except for bathroom trips and food runs. Later that day, as we were getting our coveted shots, we were notified that our friend’s maskless nanny had tested positive for Covid. We were all overcome with a paranoid fear for ourselves, the kids, our friends and that other couple. How could this happen? We started to think back on the day – what did we touch? How many times were we inside? How close were we to that nanny? Our friend? Each other? The irony of being exposed to Covid right at the finish line was not lost on me. And entirely my fault. The lure of Irish sausages could have been my undoing. For the next 10 days were we in isolation. I was pissed at my stupidity.

New York City does not feel like the mausoleum it was last year. Sure, tourist counts are still way down, but it does feel like village life is returning within the confines of the great city

A PCR test cleared us all of Covid. With swabs stuffed up their noses, my children thought it was a nose tickle party because it came with lollipops after. My friend, who hosted the brunch, was not so lucky. He tested positive. But as the luck of the Irish would have it, he did not develop anything more than feeling tired. No serious illness, no hospital visit. He was fortunate.

But it was an alarming reminder that this virus, along with its more infectious variants, is still out there, undiscerning and present until we reach some level of herd immunity. While that light is shining bright at the end of the tunnel, it was a prescient reminder that until I’m fully vaccinated, I’m still at risk for myself and others.

It’s disheartening to see Ireland in the same position New York was 12 months ago. I feel for my mother, essentially isolated from her family. My now three-year-old daughter has no memory of meeting her Nanna. The last time was when she was one and a half years-old. Facetime is not a substitute for human connection.

Even if I wanted to, I can’t go to Ireland now, no exceptions even for fully vaccinated people like myself, because of the new quarantine policies. All designed to make us stay away. Even despite these restrictions, with infection rates still spreading, never have the actions of so few impacted so many. Now with vaccine availability in NYC, we are looking forward to the day we can all reunite and come to Ireland.

Meanwhile, 3,000 miles away, New York City does not feel like the mausoleum it was last year. Sure, tourist counts are still way down, but it does feel like village life is returning within the confines of the great city. The hard-core locals remain. Sightseeing tours have made a cautious return, this time on a more private and intimate basis. Spring is in the air. There’s a bounce in my step.

If I keep my head down for a few more weeks, maybe I’ll get that summer holiday after all and my kids will get a chance to meet their grandmother again. And maybe you will too. Keep hope alive.

Mark O’Toole’s blog is now part of the New York Historical Society museum’s collection. His digital diary is the first the society has run.

If you live overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do

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Facebook admits high-profile users are treated differently

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Facebook’s oversight board said the social media company hadn’t been “fully forthcoming” about internal rules that allowed some high-profile users to be exempt from content restrictions and said it will make recommendations on how to change the system.

In the first of its quarterly transparency reports published Thursday, the board said that on some occasions, Facebook “failed to provide relevant information to the board,” and in other instances the information it did provide was incomplete.

For example, when Facebook referred the case involving former US president Donald Trump to the board, it didn’t mention its internal “cross-check system” that allowed for a different set of rules for high-profile users.

Facebook only mentioned cross-check, or XCheck, to the board when asked whether Trump’s page or account had been subject to ordinary content moderation processes.

The cross-check system was disclosed in recent reporting by the Wall Street Journal, based in part on documents from a whistle-blower.

The journal described how the cross-check system, originally intended to be a quality-control measure for a select few high-profile users and designed to avoid public relations backlash over famous people who mistakenly have their posts taken down, had ballooned to include millions of accounts.

The oversight board said it will undertake a review of the cross-check system and make suggestions on how to improve it.

As part of the process, Facebook has agreed to share with the board relevant documents about the cross-check system as reported in the Wall Street Journal. – Bloomberg

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Green mortgages may leave owners of older homes unable to sell

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Estate agents warn owners of older homes, rural houses and listed properties could struggle to sell under green mortgage plans

  • Boris Johnson has unveiled his plans for turning Britain green by 2050 
  • The plans include proposals on how to make the housing stock greener 
  • The plans would see lenders disclose the energy performance of properties










Homeowners living in older, rural and even listed properties risk being unable to sell if strict green finance targets are introduced, estate agents have warned.

The warning comes after Boris Johnson unveiled his plan for turning Britain green by 2050 this week, with mortgage lenders having targets for the energy performance of properties in their portfolio.

A body that represents estate agents across Britain claimed that the property market could be distorted as a result of the measures and called for Britain’s historic housing stock to be taken into account.

Boris Johnson revealed proposals on how to make the housing stock greener this week

Boris Johnson revealed proposals on how to make the housing stock greener this week

Timothy Douglas, of Propertymark, said: ‘Incentivising green improvements to properties via lending creates risks of trapping homeowners with older properties, those who live in rural areas, listed buildings or conservation areas, making their homes difficult to sell and therefore reducing the value.’

Propertymark said that those living in older properties could be left with homes that they could not sell if buyers were unable to secure finance on them due to their lower energy efficiencies.

The effect would be likely to be felt more by less wealthy owners, as deep-pocketed buyers would be more able to overlook mortgage restrictions and high-end older homes would continue to be desirable.

Mr Douglas said: ‘The use of targets could distort the market and sway lenders towards preferential, newer homes in order to improve the rating of their portfolio.

‘Stopping a large portion of housing stock from being able to enter the market could cause havoc for home buying and selling as well as the wider economy.’ 

He added that improving the energy efficiency of homes should be reliant on consumer choice and not something enforced by mortgage lenders, with all the knock-on effects this could entail.

He said: ‘We would be concerned if lenders raise rates and limit products because fundamentally, improving the energy performance of a property is reliant on consumer choice and it is not the core business of mortgage lenders.’

Mark Harris, of mortgage broker SPF Private Clients, said: ‘The green agenda is not new but there is increasing impetus behind it. There are more green mortgage products aimed at those purchasing more energy-efficient properties – A-C rated, and not just from specialist lenders but the high street banks too.

‘However, there is a real danger that green initiatives could create the next round of mortgage prisoners if homeowners are trapped in older homes that can’t be improved, so they can’t move because they can’t sell them on.

‘Without changes or improvements, lenders may restrict lending to lower loan-to-values, higher pricing, or not lend at all. This could penalise those who are unable to adapt to or adopt new efficient technologies economically.’

A UK Finance spokesperson said: ‘Greening our housing stock is vital if we are to meet our climate change obligations and banks and finance providers are committed to helping achieve this goal and making sure consumers are not left behind.’

Ways to boost energy efficiency  

Propertymark recommends three measures to improve the energy efficiency of homes without negatively impacting the housing market.

1. Improvements linked to an EPC

These include linking a plan for energy efficiency improvements to the recommendations on a property’s Energy Performance Certificate.

It could demonstrate the ‘most suitable route’ to a warmer home, regulatory compliance and zero carbon, according to Propertymark.

2. Tax breaks

It also recommends using tax breaks to incentivise homeowners to finance energy efficiency improvements.

For example, these could include making energy improvements exempt from VAT or offering lower rates of council tax for homes that have been made more energy efficient.

3. Adjustable tax rates

An adjustable rate of property tax that is tied to energy performance is also being recommended by Propertymark.

This could be done in two ways, it suggested. First, by applying the adjustment as a reduction on more energy-efficient properties. And second by offering rebates to buyers if energy efficiency improvements are made to less efficient properties within a certain time period after purchase.

Propertymark said that by linking energy performance with property taxes, this could help introduce increased saleability for more energy-efficient properties. In addition, it suggested that improvements would become standard for homeowners seeking costs and improve the desirability of their homes.

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Johnson rules out face masks as UK’s daily Covid cases rise above 50,000

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Daily coronavirus cases in Britain have risen above 50,000 for the first time since July, but Boris Johnson said he will not bring back compulsory face coverings or introduce vaccine passports.

Speaking in Northern Ireland, the prime minister said his government was holding firm to its policy of no legal restrictions introduced in July, but was watching the numbers carefully.

“The numbers of infections are high but we are within the parameters of what the predictions were,” he said. “We are sticking with our plan.”

Mr Johnson acknowledged the “patchiness” of Britain’s vaccination programme, urging people to come forward for their booster jabs as soon as they are invited to do so. But Labour leader Keir Starmer said the government should beef up the programme, ensure that more children were vaccinated and aim to deliver half a million jabs a day.

“The government said that the vaccine would be the security wall against the virus and now the government is letting that wall crumble,” he said.

“We’ve seen those that most need it not able to get the jab they need. Only, I think, 17 per cent of children have got the vaccine. And the booster programme has slowed down so much that at this rate we’re not going to complete it until spring of next year. So the government needs to change these, it needs to get a grip. I think it needs to drive those numbers up to at least 500,000 vaccines a day.”

Vaccine passports

The British Medical Association (BMA) accused the government of “wilful negligence” in not bringing back some restrictions, and of failing to learn the lessons of a parliamentary report last week about its handling of the pandemic. The association’s chairman, Chaand Nagpaul, said doctors could say categorically that it was time to bring back compulsory face masks and to introduce vaccine passports.

“By the health secretary’s own admission we could soon see 100,000 cases a day, and we now have the same number of weekly Covid deaths as we had during March, when the country was in lockdown,” he said.

“It is, therefore, incredibly concerning that he is not willing to take immediate action to save lives and protect the NHS. ”

Health secretary Sajid Javid warned this week that some restrictions could be introduced if the public failed to exercise caution and to take up vaccination offers. He acknowledged that Conservative MPs could show an example by wearing masks in the House of Commons, but house leader Jacob Rees-Mogg on Thursday rejected the suggestion.

Crowded spaces

“There is no advice to wear face masks in workplaces. The advice on crowded spaces is with crowded spaces with people that you don’t know. We on this side know each other,” he told the SNP’s Pete Wishart.

“Now, it may be that he doesn’t like mixing with his own side, wants to keep himself in his personal bubble. He may find the other members of the SNP – who I normally find extraordinarily charming…but we on this side have a more convivial fraternal spirit, and for our calling the guidance of her majesty’s government.”

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