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Subsidised antigen tests likely to proceed despite Nphet reservations

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The Government is likely to proceed with subsidising antigen tests notwithstanding the strong reservations of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) to widespread use of the rapid test for coronavirus.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said on Sunday that he “strongly suspects” the Cabinet will decide at its meeting on Tuesday to make the test more affordable to people.

“Are we going to use it more widely? Of course we will. Are we going to make it more affordable, I strongly suspect we will,” he told RTÉ’s The Week in Politics.

It is likely that the move will lead to charges per antigen test as low as €1 to €2, with the kits being widely available in pharmacies and supermarkets.

Mr Coveney’s comments come as 4,181 new cases of Covid-19were reported on Sunday afternoon. The number of patients being treated in hospital was 668 as of 8am on Sunday, it said, with 125 in ICU.

Mr Coveney also told the programme that future lockdowns were not inevitable, but the Government would have to take cognisance of future health advice.

The chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan and Nphet’s head of forecasting Professor Philip Nolan have both expressed doubts over subsidising antigen testing. They have expressed concerns the tests will not be used properly by people, who will get false reassurances over their Covid status.

On Saturday, Prof Nolan said he and Dr Holohan were aligned in their views and said the important thing was that the right test was used at the right time.

In a separate interview with This Week on RTÉ, Prof Nolan said: “Our own data shows us that antigen tests are not being used well. So for instance, of people who use an antigen test in the past week or so, those who were symptomatic on a positive antigen test, less than a third went on to get the confirmatory PCR tests.





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“We have legitimate concerns that we know the tests are not being used well. If you are an asymptomatic close contact to use the test, but if you are involved in higher risk activities not to use these tests if you have symptoms suggesting you have Covid-19. If you have symptoms you need a PCR test.”

Mr Coveney defended the Government’s policies on antigen testing and denied its introduction had been delayed for months. He said it had been used regularly in settings such as schools, colleges and meat factories.

Asked if a subsidy would be introduced by Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, he said: “If he thinks it is beneficial he will bring (a memo) to Cabinet.

“I can certainly see the arguments that if you don’t want antigen testing to be cost prohibitive for people and if it makes sense to have antigen testing we should be encouraging that.

“But we have to be careful that people don’t replace PCR testing with antigen testing in their own minds. That could be counterproductive.”

‘Dithering’

Speaking on the same programme Louise O’Reilly of Sinn Féin said the Government was delaying and dithering in its response to the latest wave.

“People are away ahead of the Government on antigen testing,” she said.

“Not too long ago the Government was against antigen testing. They have now come around to what Sinn Féin and other parties have been calling for,” she said.

Róisín Shortall, co-leader of the Social Democrats, said that the Government had been very slow in responding to antigen, to ventilation advice and to respond to the inadequate capacity for PCR testing in the past week which was unacceptable, she said.

Peadar Tóibín of Aontú pointed out that the State had conducted 500,000 antigen tests since summer whereas Denmark was conducting 500,000 per day and had a third of the rate of Ireland. Mr Coveney retorted that new restrictions were being introduced in Denmark.

He denied claims by the Opposition representatives that the Government messaging lacked consistency. Mr Coveney also said the Cabinet sub-committee on economics, which meets tomorrow, will also discuss the issue of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment. The rate was reduced this month just as the new upsurge in cases began to accelerate. Mr Coveney did not say the reduction would be revisited but did say it would be one of the matters for discussions.

In his interview, Professor Nolan said that the current modelling showed that if nothing was done, the State would be in “very significant difficulty in the course of December”.

However, he said that there was a positive message that if people were to make “relatively minor adjustments in their level of social contacts” the virus could be brought under control.

He added the reproduction rate or “R” rate was somewhere between 1.2 to 1.3 that number needed to be reduced to below 1.

“What that means in practical terms is if we reduce our level of social contacts by about 30 per cent… we will suppress the virus again.”


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Senior figures in Washington stand behind Belfast Agreement and protocol, McDonald says

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Senior figures in United States politics have made it clear that the government of Boris Johnson in the UK will face negative consequences internationally if it attempts to rupture or dispense with the Northern Ireland protocol, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has said.

In a presentation at the National Press Club in Washington DC on Thursday she said the protocol was “necessary, operable and going nowhere, despite what Boris Johnson might wish to believe”.

She said she had met with “people of considerable influence” in the US Congress and in the Biden administration on her visit to the US this week and they all stood four square behind the Belfast Agreement and the protocol.

“I heard yesterday on the Hill the clearest possible articulation across the board that any notion of walking away from the protocol would not be acceptable to the United States.”

Asked about a report in the Financial Timed that Washington had delayed lifting tariffs on UK steel and aluminium products amid concerns about threats by the UK to invoke article 16 of the protocol, Ms McDonald said this was a matter for the Biden administration.

However, she said: “There is no doubt where the US stands. If Johnson believes he can walk away from the protocol, he is wrong and there will be consequences for Britain if he chooses that course of action.”

Tariffs

Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie, who was also in Washington DC on Thursday, said if the lifting of tariffs was being delayed due to concerns about the protocol, he would argue at a meeting with the US state department that it had “got it wrong” in its view on what article 16 was about.

“If people say we have to adhere to the protocol and article 16 is part of the protocol then it becomes a legitimate thing you can use.”

“It is not about whether you should or should not use it. It is about how you should use it.

“You should use it in a narrow sense of a particular issue that is causing economic or societal harm in Northern Ireland, for example, medicines .”

“If the medicine issue has not been fixed and is starting to affect the people of Northern Ireland, it would be right to instigate article 16 to focus minds on that issue.”

Ms McDonald also told the press club event that she expected the United States would “be on the right side” on the controversy over British plans for an amnesty in relation to killings during the Troubles.

She said the British government was going to the ultimate point to keep the truth from the people about its war in Ireland.

She said the Johnson government’s plans would mean “in effect no possibility of criminal action, civil actions or even inquests into killings in the past”.

Ms McDonald also forecast that a point was coming over the coming five or 10 years where referenda would be held on the reunification of Ireland. She urged the Irish government to establish a citizen’s assembly to consider preparation for unity.

She also said “there will be need for international support and international intervention to support Ireland as we move to transition from partition to reunification”.

Separately, asked about a recent Sinn Féin golf fundraising event that was held in New York, Ms McDonald said the money that was raised would be spent on campaigning and lobbying in the US.

She described it as a patriotic expression by people in the US who had a deep interest in Ireland and the peace process.

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Drop in cancer diagnoses as high as 14 per cent during pandemic, early data shows

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The drop in the number of cancers detected during the Covid-19 pandemic could be as high as 14 per cent, preliminary data has suggested.

A report from the National Cancer Registry said it was still too early to provide “definitive answers” on whether pandemic hospital restrictions last year led to a reduction in the number of cancers diagnosed.

The registry’s annual report said an estimated decrease of 14 per cent in detections pointed to the “potential scale” of Covid-19’s impact on other healthcare.

A separate analysis of data on microscopically verified cancers diagnosed last year showed a reduction of between 10 and 13 per cent, the report said.

The drop in confirmed cancer cases, when compared with previous years, could be partly accounted for by “incomplete registration of cases already diagnosed”, it said.

Prof Deirdre Murray, director of the National Cancer Registry, said there were “clear signals that, as expected in Ireland, the number of cancer diagnoses in 2020 will be lower than in previous years”.

‘Very worried’

Averil Power, chief executive of the Irish Cancer Society, said the organisation was “very worried” over the significant drop in cancers diagnosed last year.

The shortfall in cancers being diagnosed would present a “major challenge” in the coming years, with lengthy waiting lists and disruptions to screening services “all too commonplace” already, she said.

Ms Power said it was frightening to think of the people who were living with cancer but did not know it yet. She added that existing cancer patients were “terrified” of having treatments delayed due to the recent rise in Covid-19 cases.

The registry’s report said there were about 44,000 tumours identified each year between 2017 and 2019.

Not counting non-melanoma skin cancer, the most common cancer diagnoses were for breast and prostate cancer, which made up almost a third of invasive cancers found in women and men respectively.

For men this was followed by bowel and lung cancer, and melanoma of the skin. Lung cancer was the second most common cancer for women, followed by colorectal cancer and melanoma of skin.

Nearly a third of deaths in 2018 were attributed to cancer, with lung cancer the leading cause of death from cancer, the report said.

The second, third and fourth most common cancers to die from in men were bowel, prostate and oesophagus cancer. For women breast, bowel and ovarian cancers were the most common fatal cancers.

The report said there were almost 200,000 cancer survivors in Ireland at the end of 2019, with breast cancer patients making up more than a fifth of the total.

Mortality rates

The research found cancer rates among men had dropped between 2010 and 2019, with mortality rates decreasing or remaining the same across nearly every type of cancer. Rates of cancer detected among women had increased between 2008 and 2019, with mortality rates for most cancers decreasing.

The report said the five-year survival rate from cancer had increased to 65 per cent for the period 2014 to 2018, compared with 42 per cent two decades previous.

There had been “major improvement” in survival rates for most major cancers, however, the research noted the chances of survival varied significantly depending on the type of cancer.

Prostate, melanoma of the skin and testis cancer had survival rates of more than 90 per cent, followed closely by breast and thyroid cancer, and Hodgkin lymphoma. Pancreas, liver, oesophagus and lung cancers had much lower five-year survival rates on average, the report said.

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How Germany has made it easier to cancel broadband and phone contracts

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What’s going on?

On December 1st, new amendments to the Telecommunications Act came into force in Germany. The updates bring with them wide-ranging changes to consumer rights laws for people who’ve signed – or will sign – new mobile, landline and internet contracts.

The headline change relates to the amount of time contracts are allowed to run for after they renew. If a customer signs up to a 24-month mobile contract and doesn’t cancel before it renews, telecommunications companies will no longer be allowed to sign that customer up for another one or two years without their permission.

Instead, people who don’t cancel in time will be put onto a one-month rolling contract that essentially allows them to terminate at any point with just one month’s notice.

It’s an end to a tax on the disorganised that has seen people stuck paying for contracts they no longer want or need for up to 24 months longer – often at higher prices than they agreed when they first signed the contract.

Does that mean all contracts will be rolling contracts?

Not exactly. As before, most new contracts will run for a minimum 24-month term – so expect to be locked in for at least this long, unless you specifically look for a more flexible contract. 

The change affects what happens after this initial term is up, meaning if you do sign up for a yearly contract, one year won’t automatically turn into two if you don’t remember to cancel it in time. 

READ ALSO: Everything that changes in Germany in December 2021

What else is new?

Alongside the key changes to contract durations, there are also changes to the way in which contracts are agreed and tougher standards for internet providers.

In future, if you agree a contract over the phone, you have to receive a summary of the terms of the contract and confirm it in writing before the agreement is legally valid. 

This summary must include the service provider’s contact details, a description of agreed services, details of any activation fees, the duration of the contract and any conditions for renewal and termination. Without written approval, the contract has no legal standing and the provider has no claims against the customer – even if they switched to the new services immediately after the telephone call.

A young man on the phone in Hannover
A young man takes a phone call on a tram in Hannover. Under the new changes, contracts agreed over the phone will not be valid until they are confirmed in writing. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hauke-Christian Dittrich

If a provider makes a change to a contract after it’s up and running, customers now have the right to terminate without notice.

In future, providers must inform customers if there are more favourable offers available and a change to a new contract would be possible.  This must happen once a year, and once again, providers aren’t allowed to do this solely over the phone. 

For broadband customers, there’s more good news: internet providers will in future face issues if they don’t provide the bandwidth stated in the contract. 

That means that if your internet is slower than promised, you should have the right to pay a reduced price or terminate the contract. 

READ ALSO: Moving house in Germany: 7 things you need to know about setting up utility contracts

I signed a new contract a while ago. Do the new rules still apply? 

Yes, they do. Regardless of when you signed your new contract, the amendments to the Telecommunications Act will apply. 

That means that once your initial contract period is up, you should be able to cancel freely and only pay for the month’s notice. You should also be informed of any changes to your contract or better offers and be eligible for compensation if your internet goes below the promised bandwidth. 

If you’ve already been locked in to a 12- or 24-month contract through an auto-renewal, the situation is a bit less clear – but it may be worth contacting your provider and asking them if the terms of your contract have changed in light of the new law. 

READ ALSO: Has it just got easier to end credit agreements in Germany?

What are people saying?

The Telecommunications and Value-Added Services Association, which represents the industry, said it was important than the initial 24-month contracts were allowed to continue. The subsequent new notice periods are a good compromise, VATM Managing Director Jürgen Grützner told Tagesschau

“On the one hand, this means better financial forecasting for expanding providers’ networks and, on the other hand, the best of both worlds for consumers,” he added. 

Campaign for faster internet
“We need fast internet!” is scrawled in huge letters across a street in Weetzen, Lower Saxony. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Ole Spata

However, Grützner believes the new rules on bandwidth could cause difficulties for providers who struggle to offer the same quality of internet across all regions. 

Meanwhile, consumer rights advocates have welcomed the improvements to contract law. 

In particular, the Federal Consumer Advice Centre “expects competition to improve as a result of the new regulation, including the price-performance ratio,” Susanne Blohm from the organisation’s Digital and Media Division told Tagesschau.

In an initial sign of the regulation’s positive impact, the provider Telefonica has announced that it will abolish surcharges for contracts that don’t have a minimum cancellation period. 

Vocabulary

amendments – (die) Novelle

bandwidth – (die) Bandbreite 

minimum contract term – (die) Mindestlaufzeit 

provider – (der) Anbieter

We’re aiming to help our readers improve their German by translating vocabulary from some of our news stories. Did you find this article useful? Let us know.



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