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Reliability of Covid antigen tests seen as key issue as reopening continues

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Significant differences have emerged between Ministers and public health officials over the use of antigen testing during the reopening of business and social life.

Senior members of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), including chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan and modelling chief Prof Philip Nolan, have advised caution on the use of antigen tests in recent days.

However, Ministers and the leaders of the three coalition parties are strongly in favour of rolling out the use of such tests to help with the reopening of many sectors of commercial and social life, including sports and cultural events and, in the autumn, colleges and universities.

Antigen tests are fast and can be self-administered, but have a higher rate of error than the PCR tests that are widely used by health authorities to test for the disease.

Dr Holohan and Prof Nolan have in recent days warned that these tests are not reliable enough to be taken as evidence that someone does not have Covid-19.

However, the tests were backed by a report compiled by a team of scientists and experts led by the Government’s chief science adviser, Prof Mark Ferguson, which said they could be used to complement other health measures and as a way of finding non-symptomatic cases.

Several Ministers are in favour of the use of the tests to facilitate reopening, and there is understood to be impatience in Government Buildings on the issue.

However, Dr Holohan again stressed his objections on Monday when he told RTÉ Radio the risk was that a negative test “might falsely reassure you.. For every two cases of the disease where an antigen test is done, it will miss it in one of these cases. We can’t have people behaving as if they don’t have the disease when they do.”

Dr Holohan said it was not a question of trust in the public; it was the fact that the test did not give “a reliable enough” result.

However, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly in a statement issued to The Irish Times on Monday night strongly backed the use of the tests.

“I believe rapid testing has a role to play in our fight against Covid-19,” he said.

“The expert report recommends that different Government departments and agencies establish pilots or feasibility studies in their respective sectors. Several of my Cabinet colleagues are now actively producing plans for their own sectors.

“I am also establishing a rapid test knowledge group to ensure that information on validated tests and sampling can be readily accessed. There are divergent expert views on rapid testing, and it is important to deploy these tests in a way that maximises the potential benefits.”

Insiders

Tensions between Government and the public health officials have been evident to insiders for some time.

On Monday night a representative for small businesses accused public health officials of being “glib, flippant and scientifically ignorant” over their criticisms of rapid antigen tests to detect Covid-19.

The Department of Health should ascertain why some members of Nphet have an animus against antigen testing “in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence”, according to Isme, the Irish small and medium enterprise association.

The department should also consider how reliable Nphet advice is when it is “so demonstrably wrong” on the issue, according to chief executive Neil McDonnell in a letter to Mr Donnelly.

Citing the advice of international health bodies, Mr McDonnell said if Nphet “is privy to scientific advice at variance with the guidance from these agencies, it should publish it immediately”.

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‘I was so proud to be Navajo and so proud to be Irish’

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“For the first time in my lifetime my two cultures were intertwined in the most beautiful way … I was so proud to be Navajo and so proud to be Irish.”

Doreen McPaul was speaking as she received a Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad for 2021. President Higgins granted the awards to 11 people at a ceremony in Áras an Uachtaráin on December 2nd.

McPaul, of Irish and Navajo heritage, is attorney general for the Navajo Nation. Her award, under the category of charitable works, is in recognition of her fundraising for the Navajo, who experienced extreme hardship during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Her efforts led to a collaboration with the Irish Cultural Centre and McClelland Library in Phoenix, Arizona, which gathered more than $30,000 worth of donated supplies to assist the Navajo Nation at the peak of the pandemic.

“The Navajo Nation was so devastated by Covid-19, as a culture and as a community. [It] was really tragic and stressful, and we worked literally non-stop. The highlight of this was talking to people from all over the world …. Specifically with Ireland, we had this huge outpouring of support, and that was really overwhelming because of my own dual heritage and growing up as a half-Navajo half-Irish girl,” she told The Irish Times.

“As soon as people learned that the Navajo Nation attorney general was part-Irish, people reached out to me and claimed me as their own and invited me to all these things and celebrated my dual heritage in a way I’ve never experienced before. Literally they put me on the highest pedestal and that’s what this award signifies to me.”

A graduate of Princeton University, Doreen McPaul has worked as a tribal attorney for 20 years and has spent two years serving as attorney general. “I didn’t know I was nominated for the award first of all. So when the Irish council called to let me know I would be receiving a notice of the award, I literally cried.”

In all, 11 people received awards on Thursday, in a variety of fields. They were: Arts, Culture and Sport: Susan Feldman (USA), Roy Foster (Britain) and Br Colm O’Connell (Kenya). Business and Education: Sr Orla Treacy (South Sudan). Charitable Works: Doreen Nanibaa McPaul (USA), Phyllis Morgan-Fann and Jim O’Hara (Britain). Irish Community Support: Adrian Flannelly and Billy Lawless (USA). Peace, Reconciliation & Development: Bridget Brownlow (Canada). Science, Technology & Innovation: Susan Hopkins (Britain).

Colm Brophy, Minister of State for Overseas Development Aid and Diaspora said: “As Minister of State for the Diaspora I am aware of the profound impact our global family has had around the world in a variety of fields. There were 107 nominations for these awards this year, and the level and breadth of the achievements of the people nominated are, by any measure, remarkable.

The contribution of the Irish abroad has been immense, and the diversity of their achievements in their many walks of life, can be seen in this year’s 11 awardees.”

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Ski home values rise by up to 17% despite travel restrictions says Savills

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It’s not just Britain’s property market that is red-hot. Homes in ski resorts are being snapped up by wealthy buyers despite the pandemic and on/off travel restrictions, a new reports suggests.

And just like here, the staggering growth in values stems from high demand and lack of supply. 

The findings are in Savills latest ski report, which tracks 44 resorts globally. It found that property prices grew on average 5.1 per cent in the last year.

However, some resorts – including Flims and Grimentz in Switzerland – saw values rise 17 per cent.

This chalet in Chemin Des Cleves in Switzerland and is for sale for CHF6,000,000, the equivalent of £4.9million

This chalet in Chemin Des Cleves in Switzerland and is for sale for CHF6,000,000, the equivalent of £4.9million

Top 20 prime ski resorts, based on price per square metres (priced in euros)

Top 20 prime ski resorts, based on price per square metres (priced in euros)

The release of pent-up demand for ski properties follows almost two seasons of closures for most resorts.

Jeremy Rollason, of Savills, said: ‘Only a few resorts such as Val d’Isère, Verbier and Morzine were seeing real price growth up until 2019. 

‘That has all changed with virtually all resorts in the Alps and North America experiencing strong double digit and sometimes exponential price growth in a matter of months.’

He adds: ‘The first quarter of 2021 was particularly acute for demand. Transaction volumes doubled over the previous year and fierce competition emerged, especially for prime property in the most exclusive resorts.

‘Property that had previously been for sale for a few months – or even years – suddenly found buyers who were keen to escape the confines of towns and cities.’

The North American ski resorts of Aspen and Vail top the Savills Ski Prime Price League with Courchevel 1850 moving from the top spot to third place.

Aspen, which celebrates its 75th birthday this season, is predominantly a domestic market, with average values at around £25,000 per square metre.

Meribel has broken into the top ten price resorts with asking prices of around £13,800 per square metre. 

With its 200 lifts, and central to the world’s largest ski area – Les Trois Vallees – Meribel is popular among French and British skiers looking for a dual season resort.

Making the most of a dual season: This five-bed chalet is in St Gervais, in France's Haute-Savoie region, and is on the market for €2.5m (£2.13m)

Making the most of a dual season: This five-bed chalet is in St Gervais, in France’s Haute-Savoie region, and is on the market for €2.5m (£2.13m)

Estate agents Savills also looked at the prospects for price growth in 10 key resorts

Estate agents Savills also looked at the prospects for price growth in 10 key resorts

While resorts have always pushed the benefits of using properties throughout the winter and summer, a dual season resort is now the most important locational factor for buyers as they look to make the most of their holiday homes, according to Savills.

The estate agent said that regardless of international travel restrictions, foreign buyers are still keen to purchase ski resort properties and have been quick to return to the property market as restrictions have lifted.

This week, some resorts opened early amid heavy snowfall and are hoping to remain so throughout the season.

Mark Nathan, of Chalets 1066, the largest operator in France’s Les Gets, said: ‘We are fortunate here in that Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, the French Minister for Tourisme has said that ‘closing is not an option’ this winter.

‘The snow is amazing at the moment and the pistes will be opening this weekend. The planned date was December 12 for early opening so this shows how good the conditions are. The fresh snow was up to my knees this morning.’

This five-bed chalet is in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, and is for sale for CHF4,200,000, the equivalent of £3.4million

This five-bed chalet is in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, and is for sale for CHF4,200,000, the equivalent of £3.4million

He explained that visitors will be expected to show proof of vaccination to go into bars and restaurants, and also when buying lift passes.

‘There might even be random checks in the lift queues. We are also expecting to have to use masks in lift queues – but these are all small points and the good news is we can all ski and enjoy a mountain holiday. 

‘Our bookings are the best we have ever had by a long way, in over 13 years of business. 

‘Over the past few days there has been nervousness among the English and a few other countries with the new Omicron variant, but we now hear that the Swiss will be allowing people who are on their way to France to land at Geneva and then take a transfer directly to France. 

‘Overall, we are looking forward to an exciting ski season.’

Qualified ski instructor and ski journalist Rob Stewart added: ‘British skiers spend more money than domestic visitors and ski resorts are desperate to have us back. 

‘In some French resorts, British skiers are only second to French visitors in regards to numbers and we are such an important part of their economy.

‘This winter, snow seems to have come fairly early and in decent quantities, and it’s cold. This always helps increase visitor numbers and after such a terrible winter last year because of Covid, there is huge positively about this winter being a good one.

‘The challenges remain for British skiers, with nerves around changing travel restrictions still haunting the industry and lack of availability pushing prices higher for the moment. 

‘But for skiers that have missed out for one and half seasons now, these challenges will be overcome if possible, for the chance to get back on the slopes’.

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Players should be allowed to compete in Saudi International

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Rory McIlroy has delivered a potentially crucial intervention on behalf of golfers wishing to compete in the Saudi International in February by insisting the PGA and European tours should not block them from playing.

The Saudi International, once of the European Tour but now an Asian Tour event, has confirmed a number of the world’s most prominent golfers – including Tommy Fleetwood, Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood and Sergio García – have agreed to feature in 2022.

Saudi Arabia has sought to make inroads into professional golf but has encountered stiff resistance from the European and PGA tours. It has been reported both those bodies could trigger open warfare by refusing to grant releases to their members to play in Jeddah. The European Tour will discuss the issue at board level in the coming days.

McIlroy has no interest in accepting Saudi money but believes others should not be denied the opportunity. “I think we’re independent contractors and we should be able to play where we want to play,” he said. “So in my opinion I think the Tour should grant releases. It’s an Asian Tour event, it’s an event that has official golf world rankings.

“I do see reasons why they wouldn’t grant releases but I think if they’re trying to do what’s best for their members and their members are going to a place other than the PGA Tour and being able to earn that money, I mean, we’re independent contractors and I feel like we should be able to do that if that’s what our personal choice is. My personal choice is not to do that but obviously a lot of players are doing that and I think it’s fair to let them do that.

“My view as a professional golfer is I’m an independent contractor, I should be able to go play where I want if I have the credentials and I have the eligibility to do so. I’d say most of the players on tour would be in a similar opinion to me.”

The matter is further complicated by some players having signed multi-year deals to play in Saudi. McIlroy, 32, did admit the prospect of legal wrangling is an unappealing one. “I think the professional game needs to get to a point where we as professionals need to know where we stand,” he said. “Are we actually independent contractors? Are we employed by a certain entity? There’s a lot of grey area in that and that’s what sort of needs to be sorted out, I think.”

McIlroy’s curious competitive year will close at this weekend’s Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas. “I think it’s been a year where I’ve struggled in parts but I still got two wins on tour, which is pretty good,” the world No 8 said. “I was tied for the lead with nine holes to go in the US Open. I played well in parts, I just didn’t do it consistently enough. I go back to 2019 and had like 19 top-10 finishes or whatever it was; that’s the level I want to play at.” – Guardian

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