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Ireland to cushion tough COVID-19 restrictions with budget billions

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Ireland’s government will offer in its budget for 2021 on Tuesday more support to those most impacted by some of Europe’s toughest COVID-19 restrictions and will also try to prepare for the added threat of a no trade deal Brexit, writes Padraic Halpin.

Like other countries, Ireland has spent aggressively to contain the pandemic crisis with billions of euros in emergency jobless benefits, wage subsidies and business loan guarantees, turning last year’s budget surplus into a forecast deficit of 6.1% of gross domestic product (GDP) for 2020.

With the damage to the state finances not as bad as feared, ministers have a much bigger budget pot available. Sources familiar with the process say the spending plan is set to include a multi-billion euro Brexit and COVID-19 recovery fund and a VAT cut for the hard-hit hospitality sector.

The deficit is set to dip to just below 6% of GDP next year as a result of the new measures, one of the sources said. [L8N2H34D7]

“This budget will focus on how we can support our country in dealing with the immediate challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequences of a no trade deal Brexit,” Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe told reporters last week.

“But of course as we focus on those priorities we also have to continue to look at how we can make progress on the other core issues facing the government, that of housing, that of healthcare and that of climate change.”

While Ireland’s central bank forecasts that GDP may fall by as little as 0.4% this year, the relatively robust performance is being driven by the less affected export sector and masks an uneven recovery that has left unemployment stuck at around 15%.

A tightening of lockdown restrictions last week - banning indoor service in pubs and restaurant nationwide - will add to pressure on the domestic economy.

Donohoe and Public Expenditure Minister Michael McGrath are also expected to signal that the temporary wage subsidy and emergency unemployment schemes will not be removed suddenly at the current cut-off of April 2021.

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Coronavirus likely to affect Belgium Poppy Remembrance appeal

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It is feared that the health pandemic could affect this year's Remembrance Sunday commemorations in Belgium. The coronavirus crisis is likely to have a financial impact on the local Poppy Appeal, given that it is feared the public may well be cautious about the risks of touching collection tins and the poppies themselves. 

Even so, the Legion's Brussels branch plans to go ahead with holding a social distanced/masked ceremony at Heverlee Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Leuven on 8 November (11am).

This will be in the presence of British Ambassador Martin Shearman, UK Ambassador to NATO Dame Sarah Macintosh, as well as top brass from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Poland, and Belgium.

Belgian rules currently allow for the event to proceed.

The Brussels branch, which celebrates its centenary in 2022, will be represented by Zoe White MBE (pictured), a former major in the British Army and the first female chair in its history.

White joined the international staff at NATO HQ in Brussels as an executive officer in 2017. She said she moved to NATO "to develop my political knowledge of defence and security matters and, most importantly, to continue to serve in an organization whose ethos and values I truly believe in."

She entered the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 2000, after a short stint in her home unit, the Royal Gibraltar Regiment. She was commissioned into the Royal Signals and served in the Army for 17 years.

White has considerable operational experience. She deployed to Kosovo on Op Agricola, Iraq on Op Telic (three times), Afghanistan on Op Herrick (three times) and Northern Ireland on Op Banner (for two years).

She specialized in providing lifesaving measures to counter radio controlled explosive devices and was awarded the MBE for her work in Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland.

During her last nine-month operational tour of Afghanistan she was embedded with the US Marine Corps and among other tasks, was responsible for mentoring and training the communications directors across the local uniformed services (Army, Police, Border Patrol) in Helmand - a role, she says, that taught her much about the value of authentic dialogue (and left her with a love of cardamom tea and dates).

Looking back at her military career, she says: "I was privileged to command soldiers who were technical experts and absolute forces of nature. It was a joy to serve with them."

A self-confessed "defence geek", Zoe studied Battlespace Technology at Cranfield University where she expanded her knowledge of heavy armour and "exquisite" weaponry.  She is currently studying for an MBA in her spare time.

Zoe, whose husband David is also a retired Royal Signals officer ,was elected Chair of the Brussels branch of the Royal British Legion in September 2020, succeeding Commodore Darren Bone RN. She is the first female chair of the branch since its launch in 1922.

The Prince of Wales and future King Edward VIII met founding members of the branch in June 1922.

White adds, “I am delighted to take custody of the Branch chair role. It is both a way to meaningfully continue my service to veterans and those still serving, and to continue the tradition of Remembrance in a country where so many made the ultimate sacrifice for the lives we live today.”

Branch website & contact details. 

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Lockdown part two: Resilience is key

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As lockdowns and travel restrictions are reintroduced around the world, it is essential that businesses, governments and charities work in close co-operation to ensure the protection of the most vulnerable. COVID-19 and its consequences will clearly be with us for some time to come, so building our long-term resilience is fundamental. These measures must be formed in a calm, reasoned manner and with the long-term implications in mind, writes Yerkin Tatishev, founding chairman of Kusto Group.

My generation in the former Soviet countries went through a similar experience of massive economic and social shock in the 1990s when the USSR collapsed. Having grown through those difficult years, we perhaps have a better sense of perspective now. We know that in order to survive a crisis and flourish afterwards, patience and a plan for the future is required.

Quick wins are always in demand, often without any real consideration for their long-term impact. One can see this in business and politics across all societies, only exacerbated in times of crisis. Amid the general panic, the idea that “something must be done, this is something, therefore we must do it” often takes hold.

At Kusto Group, we already had established a charitable foundation #KustoHelp, which enabled us to deliver $2,4 million of aid to at-risk populations during the pandemic. That we had this structure in place was due to long-term thinking and the recognition that our company has a social responsibility to help those less fortunate.

In business you learn that when you have steady processes already ingrained - you have all systems in place, the right leaders, the right specialists, local competencies - you can adapt far better to a disaster or disruption. If anything, a crisis is a perfect moment to remove all unnecessary procedures, meetings, layers and bottlenecks. In other words, companies that have effective structures in good times, are in a much better position to handle the bad times. In many markets I see divisions of Kusto Group, such as agriculture and construction materials, continue to perform well for this very reason.

The same can be applied to governments and public administration. While no country or company has handled the pandemic perfectly, it has been easy to see that those with good governance have come out much stronger than those without. This learning is a perfect illustration of the need to reform structures if we are to be resilient in the long term.

The World Bank’s chief economist warned two weeks ago that countries would have to take on additional debt to help fight the economic impact of the coronavirus. As undesirable as this normally is for public finances, supporting our industries is an essential investment in the long term. Businesses take years to build up, involving massive investments of time, money and effort. The cost of letting them collapse is far greater than supporting them through the crisis. They also of course have a responsibility to support their workforce, local communities and partners through these difficult times.

Helping businesses survive the crisis is one element, but for the longer term we also have to look at areas that provide future resilience. Education and digitalisation are key to this. Young people and their education are key to a society’s fortunes, but it’s always one of the first places that cutbacks are made when the going gets tough.

With schooling and university now largely being held online, poverty has become a greater predictor than ever of success, as good access to the Internet becomes a necessity. The rapid digitalisation of our economies likewise means that those countries, businesses, and workers with poor connectivity will struggle to keep up. Investment in both these areas will be absolutely essential to a durable recovery. With the Yerzhan Tatishev Foundation, focusing on tech and innovation, and the High Tech Academy I have tried to make my own modest contribution to this effort.

This pandemic is a crisis of a scale not seen in recent memory. Mitigating its impact will require an equally unprecedented level of cooperation between stakeholders across our society. Beyond providing vital support to businesses, we have to look to our long-term resilience and growth, through education and digitalization. This pandemic will be with us for some time now. There will be other crises ahead. Are we ready for them?

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UK plans COVID-19 'challenge' trials that deliberately infect volunteers

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Britain will help to fund trials using a manufactured COVID-19 virus to deliberately infect young healthy volunteers with the hope of accelerating the development of vaccines against it, write  and Paul Sandle in London, with additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva.

The government said on Tuesday (20 October) it will invest £33.6 million ($43.5m) in the so-called “human challenge” trials in partnership with Imperial College London, laboratory and trial services company hVIVO and the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust.

If approved by regulators and an ethics committee, the studies will start in January with results expected by May 2021, the government said.

Using controlled doses of virus, the aim of the research team  will initially be to discover the smallest amount of virus it takes to cause COVID-19 infection in small groups of healthy young people, aged between 18 and 30, who are  at the lowest risk of harm, the scientists leading the studies said in a briefing.

Up to 90 volunteers could be involved at the initial stages, they said, and virus to be used will be manufactured in labs at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Chris Chiu, an Imperial College scientist on the team, said the experiments would rapidly increase understanding of COVID-19 and the SARS-CoV2 virus that causes it, as well as accelerating development of potential new treatments and vaccines.

Critics of human challenge trials say deliberately infecting someone with a potentially deadly disease for which there is currently no effective treatment is unethical.

Business Secretary Alok Sharma said the trials would be carefully controlled and marked an important next step in building understanding of the virus and accelerating vaccine development.

Chiu said the plan for initial studies - which are aimed at assessing how much virus it takes to infect someone with COVID-19 - is to immediately treat volunteers with the Gilead antiviral drug remdesivir as soon as they are infected.

He said that while studies have show remdesivir has little or no effect on severe COVID-19 cases, his team has a “strong belief” that it will be an effective treatment if given in the very earliest stages of infection.

A spokeswoman for the World Health Organization said that there are “very important ethical considerations” when approaching such human challenge trials.

“What is critical is that if people are considering this, it must be overseen by an ethics committee and the volunteers must have full consent. And they must select the volunteers in order to minimise their risk,” she told reporters in Geneva.

Chiu said his team’s “number one priority is the safety of the volunteers”.

“No study is completely risk free, but (we) will be working hard to ensure we make the risks as low as we possibly can,” he said.

Britain’s hVIVO, a unit of pharmaceutical services company Open Orphan, said last week it was carrying out preliminary work for the trials.

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