The novelty has long worn off, the existential fear has faded, and yet the finishing line seems far away; this really is the boring bit of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mass vaccination was supposed to be the ultimate solution to the crisis, but it seems to be struggling to do the job on its own.
Covid-19 vaccines were never going to provide complete protection for everyone. But against the Delta variant, they are straining to provide the expected high-enough wall of immunity.
This mean achieving protection through herd immunity looks like an unreachable goal, while the notion of “zero Covid” through the complete elimination of the virus appears unsustainable.
Vaccines still do a pretty good job of preventing serious illness, but their reduced effectiveness against the dominant Delta variant means achieving population immunity is “mythical”, in the words of one UK scientist this week.
We knew no vaccine would be 100 per cent protective and that some people would get infected with Covid-19 despite being fully immunised. The rise in case numbers that we have seen was forecast.
Partly, it is because there are still plenty of unvaccinated people out there. Ireland’s vaccination statistics are impressive, with about 80 per cent of adults fully vaccinated and 90 per cent at least partly dosed.
Others will have some degree of immunity due to recent infection, but that still leaves large numbers at risk of infection by a variant which is much more contagious than previous strains.
The other factor is lower-than-expected vaccine performance. It is early days in terms of assessing their effectiveness against the Delta variant, but one survey in the UK found fully vaccinated people had only a 50 to 60 per cent reduced risk of infection once asymptomatic carriers were taken into account.
In the US, researchers found the effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine had fallen to just 42 per cent against the variant, with Moderna performing better with an effectiveness of 76 per cent.
Latest reports from Israel suggest Pfizer’s vaccine is just 39 per cent effective against infection, down from 64 per cent weeks earlier as Delta became dominant. The vaccine was 88 per cent effective against hospitalisation.
More positive UK research points to the Pfizer vaccine being 88 per cent effectiveness against variant-driven disease.
Cases tell us less than they ever did, now they are occurring mostly among younger people. As the State’s deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn reminded us during the week: “When we see cases in vaccinated people, we need to remember what we are not seeing. What we don’t see is the very many more infections, hospitalisations and deaths that have been prevented by vaccination.”
Dr Glynn cited an 80 per cent effectiveness figure for vaccines against disease and 95 per cent against hospitalisation. He said the protection against severe disease was holding up in the context of the variant but made no equivalent claim in relation to getting infected by the variant.
Vaccinated people can transmit the disease to others. If infected with the variant, they appear to have the same levels of virus in their nose as unvaccinated people, though viral loads seem to fall more quickly. They are less likely to pass on the virus because they are less likely to get it in the first place, but some onward transmission will happen.
As more people get vaccinated, the proportion of cases involving vaccinated people grows. But only six out of 169 adults in ICU since April were fully vaccinated. Seven out of 155 deaths in this period involved fully vaccinated people.
The overall situation is confusing and still evolving. Denmark is getting rid of masks; Israel is re-introducing them.
It points to a future where Covid-19 is an ever-present threat, often flaring up in regions and sections of society with low vaccination levels.
We won’t be able to eradicate the virus in society but we can largely protect ourselves through vaccination.
At times, other measures may be needed to ensure hospitals don’t get overcrowded, or classrooms have to shut. That’s why there is renewed talk of mask requirements, and why visiting restrictions may be tightened.
“Vaccines are not perfectly effective: we will need to help them by taking simple hygiene measures to prevent infection,” National Public Health Emergency Team official Prof Philip Nolan observed this week.
With rising cases being matched by impressive vaccination figures, it is not yet clear whether extra measures will be needed in Ireland. Case numbers are forecast to peak within weeks, but this coincides with the return of schools and the onset of autumn and winter.
Another positive is that tweaked versions of the vaccines are likely to improve effectiveness against the Delta variant, meaning further restrictions may be largely avoided.
Paschal Donohoe plans bank levy extension but lower haul
Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe will continue the Irish banking levy beyond its scheduled conclusion date at the end of this year, but plans to lower the targeted annual haul from the current €150 million as overseas lenders Ulster Bank and KBC Bank Ireland retreat from the market, according to sources.
Reducing the industry overall levy target will avoid the remaining three banks facing higher levy bills at a time when the Government is seeking to lower its stakes in the bailed-out lenders.
AIB, Bank of Ireland and Permanent TSB paid a combined €93 million levy in each of the last two years, according to their latest annual reports. A decision on the new targeted yield, currently linked to deposit interest retention tax (DIRT) collected by banks on customers’ savings, will be announced at the unveiling of Budget 2022 on October 12th.
Originally introduced in 2014 by then minister for finance Michael Noonan for three years to ensure banks made a “contribution” to a recovering economy after the sector’s multibillion-euro taxpayer bailout, the annual banking levy has since been extended to the end of 2021.
A further extension of the levy has largely been expected by the banks and industry analysts, as the sector has been able to use multibillion euro losses racked up during the financial crisis to reduce their tax bills. A spokesman for the Department of Finance declined to comment on the future status of the banking levy as planning for Budget 2022 continues.
AIB, Bank of Ireland and Permanent TSB (PTSB) alone have utilised almost €500 million of tax losses against their corporation tax bills between 2017 and 2019, according to Department of Finance figures.
Sources said that the Government will be keen not to land a levy increase on the three lenders at a time when it is currently selling down its stake in Bank of Ireland and plotting a course for the reduction of its positions in AIB and PTSB in time.
The Ireland Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF), which holds the Bank of Ireland stake on behalf of the Minister for Finance, sold 2 percentage points of holding in the market between July and August, reducing its interest to just below 12 per cent.
Meanwhile, it has been reported in recent days that the UK government is planning to lower an 8 per cent surcharge that it has applied to bank profits since the start of 2016. It comes as the general UK corporation tax is set to rise from 19 per cent to 25 per cent in 2023.
“The optics of reducing the surcharge might still be bad politically, but it would signal the partial rehabilitation for the nation’s banking sector,” said Eamonn Hughes, an analyst with Goodbody Stockbrokers, in a note to clients on Tuesday, adding that he continues to factor in a retention of the Irish banking levy in his financial estimates for banks over the medium term.
The macro pig farm threatening a historical gem in northern Spain | Culture
Christians and Muslims fought over the castle of Gormaz in Soria in the Spanish region of Castilla y León for two centuries. Now, after a lapse of hundreds of years, it is once again under threat – this time, from a macro pig farm for 4,200 animals. The proposed farm is within two kilometers of the fortress, and will be visible from its impressive caliphal gate, which is one of the biggest tourist attractions of the medieval site.
Environmental and neighborhood associations, architecture and restoration professionals, as well as the town councils of Recuerda, a village of 70 inhabitants, and Gormaz, a village of 20, call the plans an “attack” on one of the most impressive Islamic fortresses on the peninsula. With a perimeter measuring more than one kilometer, the castle of Gormaz was once the largest in Europe. It was this fortress that the Caliph of Córdoba, Al-Hakam II, ordered to be reinforced and expanded at the end of the 10th century to stop the Christian advance from the north.
Meanwhile, the company behind the project, Agro Peñaranda Esteban, insists it will comply “strictly with the law” and that if the permits are not issued, it will go elsewhere. “It’s great to eat torreznos [a kind of fried bacon snack] from Soria in a good restaurant in a big capital city,” says one of the shareholders, who is from the area. “People must think that they fall from the sky.”
The castle of Gormaz was built in the 9th century to strategically support Medinaceli, the capital of the so-called Muslim Middle Frontier. Divided into two large areas separated by a moat, there is the fortress with the tower of Almanzor and the caliphal quarters, and then the area for the troops, where the main entrance is located. Altogether, it has 28 towers with battlements and arrowslits.
The Soria fortress defended the routes to the north of the peninsula that followed the banks of the Duero river and was coveted by a number of figures, including Count García Fernández, Sancho II of Pamplona, Ramiro III of León, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar and the de facto ruler of Islamic Iberia, Almanzor. And so it passed from one side to the other until, in 1060, Fernando I of León seized it once and for all. During the reign of Spain’s Catholic Monarchs, it was turned into a prison as it no longer had any strategic value.
But now it is administrative forces that are advancing on the castle. On June 29, the Castilla y León regional government published “the announcement of a pig farm of 4,200 pigs in plot 20114 of industrial estate 1 of the municipality of Recuerda,” which backs onto Gormaz. August 10 was the deadline for anyone wishing to take issue with the environmental impact assessment, which states that the farm would not alter the surrounding landscape. “It is a landscape altered by human activity, due to its agricultural use, with no dominant variations or striking contrasts,” claims the report.
This contradicts the regional plan for the Duero Valley, approved by the Castilla y León regional authorities in 2010, which mentions a series of Landscape Management Areas (AOP) needing a specific regime of protection, management and planning. One such area includes the castle of Gormaz and the surrounding area where the farm would be located.
Luis Morales, architect and member of the Soria Association for the Defense of Nature (Aseden), points out that the castle’s environment is “totally agricultural – fields and forests – and very similar to what it might have been in the Middle Ages, when Gormaz was built. To put an industrial complex of enormous dimensions to house more than 4,000 pigs, which is what they intend, is barbaric,” he adds. “It breaks up the landscape from the same caliphal gate, the one that is so often photographed for tourism purposes.”
Morales also believes that the municipalities have the means to stop the project, “because the land is rustic and can therefore be classified as protected, which would prevent the livestock complex from being built.” Meanwhile, the Aseden association points out that the regional authorities were responsible for the White Paper of the Territorial Enclaves of Cultural Interest (ETIC), which selected 111 locations of cultural or heritage interest, one of which was Gormaz.
According to the NGO Ecologists in Action, in this type of facility whose surface area would be 4,000 square meters plus another 2,000 for slurry, “the problem of odor emissions is very important because of its proximity and orientation with respect to inhabited areas and other places of interest.” It explains: “In this case, the farm would be to the west, 1.3 kilometers from Recuerda and two kilometers from the castle of Gormaz. According to data from [Spain’s national weather agency] Aemet, the prevailing winds are from the west. In other words, it would bring unhealthy smells for most of the year to Recuerda. Surprisingly, the project says that the prevailing winds are from the northeast.”
Consuelo Barrio, mayor of Recuerda, agrees. “It is not only the visual impact, which is very important, but also the environmental impact due to the possible contamination of the water from the slurry as we are in an area of aquifers; this is in addition to the smell that would come our way as we are barely a kilometer from it.”
Meanwhile, the company behind the project considers it is under “unjustified attack.” According to one 38-year-old businessman involved in the project, “in this part of Soria there are at least three farms: Quintanar, Gormaz…. And if ours smells, it means they all smell. It’s not like years ago, when pigs were thrown into the Duero – some of which I have seen floating – or the slurry was dumped down drains. No. There are strict environmental laws and we will comply with them. It is easy to talk about ‘deserted’ Spain and all the things the politicians are saying, but when you try to create wealth, obstacles are thrown up because you can be seen from the castle two kilometers away. If they don’t let us set up here, we’ll go somewhere else,” he adds angrily.
Marisa Revilla, president of Amigos del Museo Numantino, is particularly upset by the visual effect of the pig farm. “The impact report does not take into account the horizontal impact. It only states that they are going to put up some hedges to hide the farm. But the installation will not only affect the castle, it will also affect the nearby Romanesque San Miguel hermitage.” This hermitage was inspected in the 1990s by architect José Francisco Yusta, who specializes in historical monuments and also opposes the construction of the farm. “There is no justification for breaking up the landscape,” says Yusta, who has worked on such architectural gems as the cathedral of Burgo de Osma, the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and castle of Gormaz itself.
“I believe it is not worth destroying our landscape for the two jobs that the macro-farm will provide, which are those proposed by the promoters,” says architect Luis Morales. “If there were only 200 for deserted Spain….”
English version by Heather Galloway.
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