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News from the Capitals

News from the Capitals #56


French pension reform: debate at the Assemblée Nationale ends in uncertainty
Pension reform remains on hold for a few days. The debates ended on February 17 at night, without the MPs having been able to vote on the bill, or even on Article 7 regarding the extension of the pension age to 64 years. Booed by the New Popular, Environmental and Social Union (NUPES, left alliance), Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt, put an end to the discussions, following Article 47 paragraph 1 of the Constitution, which allows the government to limit debates to 20 days in the Assemblée Nationale in the first reading. The choice of this method will require the senators to examine this bill in 15 days, starting again on February 28. A joint committee will then be formed in mid-March to find an agreement between the two chambers. The text will arrive in the Senate on March 2, in public session. The elected representatives will then discuss the various points and should manage to discuss Article 7. The deadline for Parliament discussions is March 26.

Liberal Tribune on access to care
The presidents of eight unions representing liberal health professionals (FFMKR, FNI, FNO, FNP, FSPF, SDA, SDBIO, and SNAO) and France Assos Santé co-signed, on Tuesday 28 February, a tribune on the theme of access to care. The signatories regret that the government and parliamentarians have unravelled the Rist bill, which aims to combat medical deserts and improve care by relying on the skills of paramedical health professionals. According to projections by the French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies, there will be 6.8 million people aged over 75 in 2023. It should be noted that the ageing of the population and the transformation of needs accentuate the difficulties of access to care linked to the crisis in hospital emergencies and medical deserts.  


The HoC Public Accounts Committee reports on the NHSE recovery plan 
The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee published a report today on NHS backlogs and waiting times in England since the NHSE’s three-year backlog recovery plan in February 2022. The report focuses on cancer patient waiting times for diagnosis and treatment, elective care waiting times, workforce capacity, funding, and realistic improvement goals for the NHS. 

What they assumed would be resolved by 2024 now looks highly improbable post this report. Holding the NHSE accountable to its 2022 recovery plan goals, Cancer waiting times are at their worst recorded level, with only 62% of patients receiving treatment within 62 days when 85% should urgently receive treatment. The DHSC and NHS should work on bringing cancer treatment back to an acceptable standard.

Junior Doctors decide to join strike action in the UK
Junior doctors in England have voted for strike action next month, adding to a series of walkouts by nurses and ambulance workers putting pressure on an already strained health system. Junior doctors agreed in 2019 to an annual 2% pay rise as part of a four-year deal but say that is now inadequate in light of much higher inflation. Intensive talks are due to start later between ministers and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) after the union halted next week’s 48-hour strike in England. Health Secretary Stephen Barclay will sit down with RCN leader Pat Cullen to discuss a compromise deal to end the stand-off over pay. The talks are likely to focus on next year’s pay rise, which is due in April. One option is to backdate it by several months, effectively giving nurses an extra pay boost for part of this year.

Nurses – and other NHS staff except doctors – were given an average of 4.75% this year.

That award had prompted a wave of strikes by unions representing nurses, ambulance staff, and physios, who wanted an above-inflation increase.

UK and EU strike deal on Northern Ireland protocol post-Brexit
Rishi Sunak, UK prime minister, and Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, sealed the agreement in the shadow of Windsor Castle, with both talking of a “new chapter” in relations. Sunak and von der Leyen hope the deal to smooth trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK will end years of grim post-Brexit ties between London and Brussels.

The protocol was established to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland. But it is hated by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party because it created a trade barrier for goods travelling from Great Britain into the region, which remains part of the EU’s single market for goods. DUP vowed to study the text closely before deciding whether or not to back it. Sunak has begun the task of appeasing DUP and Eurosceptic Tory MPs with his high-stakes gamble showing early signs that it could limit the size of a rebellion 

Many traders sending goods that will not travel beyond Northern Ireland will be able to use a “green lane” system: Based on a registration system and commercial transit data shared with the European Union, they will be exempted from requirements for detailed customs information, and from most but not all checks and controls. Goods headed on to Ireland will use a “red lane,” with full checks.


Fight against obesity for children in Germany
Obesity is considered one of the most important factors in the development of diabetes. More and more children in Germany have obesity. According to official data from the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, around 15 percent of three- to 17-year-olds in Germany are overweight, including almost six percent obese. About 90 percent of those affected have type 2 diabetes. Obesity developed in childhood often persists for a lifetime and increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes in later phases of life. Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture Özdemir, therefore, wants to ban advertising for chips, chocolate, and other fattening products aimed at children in the future.

Özdemir is concerned about foods with high sugar, fat, and salt content. Therefore, such products will no longer be advertised between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. The ban will apply to television and radio broadcasts, newspapers, magazines, brochures, and online networks such as YouTube. In addition, there will be no outdoor advertising within a radius of 100 meters of schools, daycare centers, playgrounds, or other leisure facilities for children.

At the same time, the Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture pointed out that he was not calling for a general ban on advertising. The ban is only planned to be applied if children are the target group. The term “children” in this context refers to people under the age of 14. 

The German Obesity Society (DAG) welcomed the idea by the Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture. 

FDP and CDU criticized the idea of Özdemir. Whether banning advertisements on junk food will lead to a successful fight against obesity is not clear at all. Furthermore, it remains an open question how the Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture wants to precisely locate the products that he considers harmful and how he wants to determine which advertising is clearly aimed at children.


Meloni’s government under attack by the opposition for the management of migrants and Crotone’s disaster. 
The Italian Minister of Internal Affairs, Matteo Piantedosi, and the Minister of Infrastructures and Transport, Matteo Salvini, are facing accusations for their decision not to send the Coast Guard to rescue a group of migrants who arrived from the coast of Turkey and found themselves in extreme difficulties due to harsh weather conditions. The boat carrying over 60 people capsized just 150 meters from the coast, and no rescue efforts were made, although the Coast Guard could have intervened and operated in even more difficult conditions in the past. The police forces, the Coast Guard, and the Ministry of the Interior were aware of the presence of the ship thanks to the control service provided by the Air Force under the auspices of FRONTEX.

Opposition parties are accusing the two ministers of having systematically ignored the problem and preventing aid from being sent, leading to the death of 40 people, including women and children. The government will be required to provide answers during parliamentary hearings, and an investigation may soon be launched by the Crotone prosecutor’s office.

The Democratic Party, along with the M5S and the Italian Left, are calling for the resignation of the Minister of the Interior and promising to fight in Parliament. They believe that what happened is unacceptable for a democratic and civilized country like Italy.

Investigation into COVID-19 management in Bergamo leads to charges against former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and the ex-Minister of Health Roberto Speranza. 
The Prosecutor’s Office in Bergamo has closed an investigation into the management of the Covid-19 pandemic during the early months of the outbreak, which had ravaged the region. The investigation named 17 people, including the former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, the former health minister Roberto Speranza, the president of the Lombardy region Attilio Fontana, and other officials. The investigation highlighted three key points: the failure to update and apply the national and regional pandemic plan, the sudden closure and reopening of the hospital in Alzano Lombardo, and the failure to establish a red zone in Valle Seriana (Province of Bergamo) which permitted the outbreak of Covid in all the area. The investigation focused on the facts that happened in the spring of 2020, during which the virus caused more than 3,000 deaths in the region. The excess mortality rate was estimated at 6,200 people from late February to April, compared to the average of the same period in previous years. The positions of Giuseppe Conte and Roberto Speranza will be referred to the Court of Ministers in Brescia, which will evaluate their possible request for trial.


A new and sordid corruption scheme splashes the government party in the Canary Islands
A new corruption scheme, ‘El caso Mediador’, has just been uncovered in Spain.
It was a network installed in the Canary Islands which, according to investigators, was made up of “politicians and government officials”. They contacted businessmen whom they were convinced that in exchange for money or gifts, they would use “their influence” to obtain the benefit they were looking for. The negotiations between the politician who headed the scheme (A PSOE deputy) and the businessmen took place over large meals and nights with alcohol, drugs, and prostitutes paid for by the businessmen. Between the two blocks, some intermediaries facilitated the contacts and hid the trail of illicit money. 

Motion of Censure to the Government.
The extreme right-wing party VOX has presented a motion of censure, by which they intend to dismiss the current president Pedro Sánchez, by Pedro Tamames, former leader of the Spanish Communist Party who several decades ago abandoned a long communist militancy to move later to the centrist space, continue rolling in the direction of the right in the nineties and accept today to lead a motion of the extreme right of the parliamentary arc. This motion of censure does not count with real support, since it would need the votes in favor of the absolute majority of the Congress to prosper and only seems to have 52 votes in favor, the ones of the parliamentarians of VOX. Everything indicates that this move by VOX has more to do with a strategy to try to grab votes from the most popular party of the right (PP) in the face of the autonomic elections in May than with actually trying to make the motion successful. 

The Government unveils new health priorities for the Spanish Presidency of the Council of the European Union.
The Spanish government has been, little by little, making public through informal communications, its priorities in health matters for the Spanish European presidency of the Council of the European Union that will begin in July, after the Swedish presidency. In recent months, the Ministry has announced the following priorities: the fight against antibiotic resistance, the European pharmaceutical strategy, HIV, and the fight against cancer, to which the fight against addictions has recently been announced.


Minister Van Peteghem presents the Belgian fiscal relief package 
On 2 March, federal finance minister Vincent Van Peteghem (CD&V) presented his ambitious proposal of a Belgian-wide fiscal relief package. In total, the measures amount to six billion euros per year. Especially workers shall benefit from the package, through which they should at least save 835 euros in addition per year. Interestingly, the VAT shall be removed from products such as Fruit and vegetables, medicines, menstrual products, and nappies, as well as public transport to promote a healthy and sustainable lifestyle.

Process on the Brussels terrorist attacks of 2016 continues 
Today (2 March) the trial of the Brussels terrorist attacks of 22 March 2016 continues. The process had been interrupted and delayed, following the surprising death of one of the defending lawyers after a heart attack in the last week. After a first session in Q4 2022, the process continues with the first testimonials from injured and victims of the attacks expected for the next week.

Belgian wine production reached an all-time high in 2022 
2022 has been a record-breaking year for Belgium’s wine production. According to the final data released by the federal ministry for economics, over three million litres have been produced in the kingdom. This means a remarkable increase compared to the previous record of two million litres in 2018.

Belgian train strike 
NMBS, the public owned Belgian rail company, announces a strike on 10 March. It is organized by the Socialist ACOB union and the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions union (CSC-ACV). Complainers mention staff shortages and a lack of investment.

Syndicate boss commits fraud 
Marc Leemans, CSC-ACV’s head goes to pension on 1 January 2024… but in a special way. Mr. Leemans would get fired by the syndicate to benefit from the unemployment system and corporate allocations.

N-VA (Flemish nationalists) cries out for social fraud. Flemish N-VA deputy Axel Ronse calls Mr. Leemans’ plan a hit to all workers.

Mouvement Réformiste’s leader Georges-Louis Bouchez states on Twitter on 1 March: “Mr. Leemans illustrates what union directions have become: machineries to profit from the system.” He calls for the end of union privileges. 

Failed attempts to boost medics staff through masters’ degrees 
During the plenary session of Wallonia-Brussels Federation (FWB)’s Parliament held on 1 March, all majority parties, except Liberals, blamed the Minister for Higher Education Valérie Galtigny for refusing to grant master’s degrees to UMons and UNamur, who wanted master’s degrees in general practice. 

Two MR deputies back the minister in saying that staff shortages are not due to a lack of practitioners’ habilitation, but due to employment issues. The Minister adds that these master’s degrees would only worsen the budgetary situation of the Wallonia Brussels Federation. 

Odd though that MR deputy Jean-Luc Crucke, a former cancer patient, states that the budget for the two masters degrees consists of 400 000 €, I.e., 0,01% of FWB’s budget. 

Socialists contest that the refusal bars many Belgians from a secure future in medical studies. This has been echoed by the majority who calls for boosting the number of practitioners.

Debates are expected to continue in FWB’s parliamentary commission.


National HPV vaccine campaign
At the beginning of 2023, 2 million invitations for HPV vaccinations have been sent to 1.2 million registered young adults in the age ranging from 18 to 27. The catch-up program is introduced to mitigate the potential risks of unvaccinated persons who did not receive any vaccinations when the programme was in development. An estimate of 160.000 young adults have received the first shot. The first incentive is made by the WHO whom set the goal of eradicating uterine cancer. The normal cost of the vaccines is 400 euros in total. Only this year, the vaccine is given for free to young adults that are admissible in the catch-up programme. 

Billionaire windfall thanks to profit tax, even more expected this year
Last year more income tax was received than ever before and the amount is expected to rise even further this year. RTL Nieuws reports that 38.5 billion euros were collected last year.

The cabinet had originally counted on 27 billion euros in income from the tax on profits. So there is a windfall of 11 billion euros. The reason is that companies in the Netherlands have made more profit than expected.

Sources from The Hague told NOS that companies are expected to make much more profit this year and that the income from profit tax will therefore increase further.

Energy ceiling and interest
Incidentally, this billion-dollar windfall does not necessarily mean that the cabinet suddenly has a lot of money left over. There are also setbacks. For example, the energy ceiling – the costs of which have not yet been determined – must still be paid.

In addition, interest rates on loans, including those of the government, are rising. Expiring loans must be refinanced at higher interest rates. The costs of this can run into the billions per year.

At the end of April, more will become clear about the state of government finances, because then the government will take stock in the Spring Memorandum.


A national mental health plan becomes a reality
On 23 February the Deputy Minister of Health Zoi Rapti, presented the National Action Plan for Mental Health 2021-2030. The Action Plan consists of 10 axes (5 vertical and 5 horizontal) which include inter alia, abolishing institutional care and developing services for patients with Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders, the development of mental health services in the community for the general population and their integration in primary health care, with modern digital tools, the integration of the mentally ill in the labor market and the protection of the mental health of employees, protecting the rights of patients and their families and combating social stigma, and finally, developing planning to deal with emergency situations, such as a pandemic or natural disasters.

Train collision socks Greece
Just before midnight on Tuesday, February 28, 2023, the passenger train running the night route Athens – Thessaloniki, filled in with 350 passengers, collided head-on with a commercial train running the opposite route in the area of Tempe. The first three carriages of the commercial train were turned into a shapeless mass of iron, with the dead reaching 42, but there are fears that the death toll will rise, as many of the injured are seriously injured. According to police sources, the station master who was arrested soon after the accident admitted that he made a mistake and put the passenger train on a collision course with the commercial train. The next day, the Minister of Infrastructure and Transport, Kostas Karamanlis announced his resignation and the government declared three days of national mourning.

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