News Ireland daily BLOG by Donie

Tuesday 13th August 2013

Joan Burton now plans to increase PRSI to ease pressure on welfare budget cuts


Social Protection Minister Joan Burton is set to push for a PRSI hike, putting her on another collision course with Fine Gael.

The Labour Party deputy leader is also coming under renewed pressure to come up with a way to means-test social welfare benefits to take them off the wealthy.

Senior Fine Gael figures believe Ms Burton wants a PRSI hike, particularly on the self-employed, to reduce the amount of cuts she has to make in October’s Budget.

Joan Burton is already at odds with Fine Gael over her approach to the Budget. She is resisting the €400m target of cuts for her department.

Fine Gael ministers are furious with Ms Burton, blaming her for scaremongering over a cut to the old-age pension in a bid to reduce the target.

The Social Protection Minister will publish a report next month, which is expected to recommend changes to the social insurance system, including a hike in PRSI for the self-employed. The report by the advisory on tax and social welfare is currently being finalised.

The advisory group is known as the Mangan Group as it is chaired by barrister Ita Mangan.

Although a previous Mangan Group report on child benefit was left gathering dust for 18 months before being published, M/s Burton is expected to release the new report within weeks of receiving it – and in time for the Budget 2014 discussions.

The new report is expected to recommend a mandatory increase in PRSI payments for the self-employed from the current 4%, by up to 2%.

In return, the self-employed would receive long-term illness and disability payments.

The report will also seek to clarify who exactly is entitled to benefits and conclude that a high percentage of self-employed workers do qualify for jobseekers’ benefits.

“Is there going to be a PRSI hike? The report will set out recommendations,” a source close to M/s Burton said.

But any move to increase PRSI will be vehemently opposed by Fine Gael, which believes it will cost jobs and potentially close many small businesses.

“She wants to raise employer PRSI under the guise of reducing the State’s liability to the social insurance fund.

“It won’t happen and is acutely anti-jobs. Employers need all the cash they have for wage bills and to employ more people,” a government source said.

REVENUE: “That will just be resisted by Michael Noonan as anti-employment,” a Minister said.

And senior government figures also said any additional revenue from PRSI would not detract from the requirement to make the savings.

“All increases in tax and PRSI are counted towards revenue, not expenditure targets and cannot be used to reduce the €440m of spending cuts required from Social Protection,” a source said.

Last year, the Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore defended Joan Burton when she indicated she was in favour of increasing PRSI contributions made by employers and workers.

M/s Burton said at the time that the benefits paid far exceeded the contributions.

“It is clear to me that something has to give,” she said.

“We can either make a decision as a country to reduce the level of benefits that we wish people to have or else we can make a decision to properly fund those benefits both now and into the future,” she said last year.

The lengthy delays in developing a means-testing system for social welfare benefits are also causing tensions between Fine Gael and Joan Burton.

“The ministers want to reform through means-testing. Nobody would be giving out if the higher-paid were taxed on these benefits. That’s where you get your savings. She has been asked to reform the means-testing system. She has come up with every excuse imaginable.

“She’s working towards the end of next June, when she can get out of that department,” a senior government source said.

Irish college students rate ‘looking good’ as more important than their religion


Looking good is more important than religion to Irish college students, according to a recent survey.

The Student Marketing Network poll, conducted among 1,146 third-level students across the country over the last two weeks, students said that they regard ‘looking good’ (fifth) as being more important than ‘religious beliefs’ (sixth), with ‘friends and family’ topping the list of importance.

It also found that 57.8% claim to be Catholic, compared to 84.16% of the general population (Census 2011).

One in five students responded that they were Atheists.

The survey found that 2.2% of students are Church of Ireland/Protestant, compared to 2011 census figures of 2.81% in the general population.

Of the Catholic students surveyed, 61.5% said ‘Yes’ when asked if they take communion, only 32.2% believe that it is the body and blood of Christ.

When asked “Do you attend communal religious ceremonies and functions?” the highest response was ‘No’ at 61%, and those who responded ‘Yes’ mainly attend only 1-3 times a year.

When offered a number of choices for why students don’t follow a religion, the most popular response was that they ‘Don’t believe in the teachings’ (77.8%).

Some 45.2% of students only follow a religion because of their parents influence, yet 40% of the students who took our survey wouldn’t want their children to follow the same religion they were brought up with. Only 13.7% follow a religion due to a strong faith.

Only 11.7% said that they follow religious teachings in everyday life.

When asked how they would characterise their belief in God, only 37.5% state that they believe in God with the top response at 41.5% being that students are unsure if there is a God.

Our survey has revealed that the views of 78.7% students have been negatively affected with regard to how they perceive the Catholic Church after the scandals were uncovered.

The results of the survey show that 83.5% of the Irish students believe that abortion should be allowed in Ireland and 76.8% think that the Catholic Church has too much power in Ireland.

When we asked the students ‘Do religious beliefs have a place in society?’ 54% stated that they do not believe society needs the influence of religion and 65.6% of the students who took part in the survey do not believe that religion makes the world a better place.

Colman Byrne, Managing Director of Student Marketing Network and and former two-term president of Union of Students Ireland, said: “ The survey brought up a lot of interesting information that people may have different views on but it certainly shows that there is a major disconnect between organised religion and young people in Ireland”.

“One thing is for certain, we all need to be aware of the rise in student Jedis among us, with 3.4% of our respondents claiming to be members of this monastic spiritual organisation. Maybe they’re on to something…May the force be with them!”

51.2% of those who took part in the survey were female, 48.8% were male.

Ryanair rejects pilot’s safety survey as a fabrication


Airline pilots call on Irish Aviation Authority to investigate safety culture

Ryanair pilots have called on the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) to investigate serious concerns they have about the airline’s safety culture.

Ryanair has dismissed as a “fabrication” a survey of more than 1,000 of the airline’s pilots regarding safety standards at the company.

Ryanair pilots have meanwhile called on the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) to investigate serious concerns they have about the airline’s safety culture.

More than 1,000 Ryanair captains and first officers took part in a survey conducted by the Ryanair Pilot Group (RPG).

It revealed that the overwhelming majority believe Ryanair does not have an open and transparent safety culture.

The pilot group claims to represents more than half of Ryanair’s senior flying personnel, but is not recognised by the airline.

Ryanair has this evening dismissed the survey as a “fabrication”.

Ryanair spokesman Robin Kiely said the RPG is a front for the European Cockpit Association (ECA) which represents pilots that fly with rival airlines.

It said the chairman of the Ryanair Pilot Group, Evert van Zwol, is a KLM pilot and a recent president of the Dutch Pilot Trade Union.

Mr Kiely added: “A so called ‘survey’ fabricated by these ECA pilot unions, which does not have access to or contactwith the entire 3,000-plus pilots employed by Ryanair, lacks any independence, objectivity or reliability.”

The survey was “another failed attempt” by ECA pilot unions to use “non-existent safety concerns to advance their 25-year failed campaign to win union recognition in Ryanair”.

The IAA said it did not rely on surveys carried out by pilot groups “which often tend to be motivated by industrial relations issues or employment issues”.

In April, members of the RPG signed a petition “urgently” calling on the IAA and its European equivalent, theEuropean Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), to examine the impact of Ryanair’s employment terms on flight safety.

Dismissal threat: The RPG survey, which involved a third of the airline’s pilots, was taken in response to a threat by Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary to dismiss any of them who signed up to the petition.

Almost 90 per cent of the pilots surveyed said Ryanair did not have an open and transparent safety culture.

Two thirds (67.4 per cent) of pilots questioned said they did not feel comfortable raising safety related issues through Ryanair’s own internal systems.

Some 93.6 per cent of pilots believe the IAA and the EASA should investigate the impact of Ryanair’s employment practices on safety.

Pilots anonymously told the Channel 4 Dispatches programme, to be broadcast tonight, that most of them were employed on zero-hours contracts. One told the programme: “About 70 per cent of our pilots, if not more, are on a contract. They get paid only if they fly. So that’s the first pressure. I need to fly in order to make a living.”

Ryanair has been involved in a long-running feud with the pilot group, which has been set up in the absence of union recognition for the company.

Last week the RPG’s Facebook and Twitter accounts were shut down after complaints from a third party which the pilots assume is Ryanair.

In a detailed response to the pilot survey, the IAA stated that Ryanair “fully complies with all European aviation safety requirements”.

Furthermore, it has one of Europe’s “most advanced safety data collection systems with full in-flight data monitoring”.

Ryanair’s quality assurance process is now being used by other airline operators around the world to facilitate “corrective actions in a range of operational areas including, safety, operations and maintenance”, it said.

Channel 4 Dispatches programme was scheduled for broadcast tonight at 8pm.

Meeting Ireland’s future health care needs a major challenge ahead


Planning for future workforce requirements is difficult, especially in an area as complex and dynamic as healthcare. The gradual, but consistent, emigration of our junior doctors to other states, and the difficulty in filling consultant vacancies shows that it is hard enough dealing with the present situation, let alone thinking about the future.

The financial challenges faced by the Irish health service make things even more uncertain.

Yet a big reason why we are experiencing difficulties is because of a lack of planning. The recent recruitment campaigns in India and Pakistan are symptomatic of the current approach and have been criticised for being a short-term solutions to a long-term problem.

Last year, the EU produced a document on workforce planning. The report aimed to provide research support to Member States to help them prepare for the EU Joint Action on Health Workforce Planning and Forecasting for the years 2013-15. The report was written against the context of a projected shortfall on one million health professionals  in 2020. Of these 230,000, or 13.5%, would be physicians. Such a shortage would mean that almost 15% of demand for healthcare across the EU will not be covered by the available workforce.

Although planning is vital in order to avoid, or mitigate against, such an eventuality, it is nonetheless difficult. The report states that multiple scenarios need to be given consideration, a task made even harder, at a European level, due to limited data and different national contexts.

When it comes to planning, it states that supply-side projections are conceptually easier to address than predicting future demand, but requires better data sets than are currently available in many counties.

The Irish Medical Council has sought to address this with the publication of a new document, “Medical Workforce Report.”

The findings are designed to help inform the future medical staffing requirements of the health service by providing a detailed overview of doctors’ practice in Ireland.

The report shows that as of July 2012, there are 16,392 doctors registered in the country.

Taking all doctors on the register into account, including those who worked outside of Ireland for all or part of the year, made Ireland’s medical practitioner density third (2012 end of year registration figures) or seventh (retaining registration June 2012) highest out of 28 OECD countries.

Although this data is the usual way of comparing medical practitioner density in Ireland with other countries, it overestimates the medical workforce available to meet future workforce needs.

Ireland ranked 13th (end of year registration figures) or 18th (retaining registration June 2012) among the 28 countries for medical practitioner density, using data for doctors who worked exclusively in Ireland during the previous 12 months.

The report shows that 75% of doctors registered with the Council who had practised medicine in the past 12 months said they had practised in Ireland only; 10.5% practised outside Ireland only; 15.1% practised in Ireland and elsewhere.

“Beneath an apparently satisfactory supply of doctors for tomorrow’s health system, the report reveals that many doctors registered with the Medical Council are not fully active in the medical workforce as they are not in active practice, practising outside Ireland or are in less than full-time practice,” according to Medical Council CEO, Ms Caroline Spillane.

Most doctors (44.3%) registered to practise in Ireland have specialist qualifications; 42% are generally qualified doctors, who have not completed training in a medical specialty. 12.2% were training in a specialty at the time of re-registration and 1.4% were in the Supervised division, for doctors trained in non-EU country who have secured a post in Ireland.

While growth in specialisation is high, the pace of growth amongst specialties is variable.

The current estimates of medical practitioner density who are working in Ireland in all but three (medicine, paediatrics, and public health medicine) of 11 major specialty groupings raise issues of potential shortages versus projected future demand.

According to the report, if all the doctors retaining registration were working in Ireland the situation would be very different: In this case, density would meet or exceed projected need in all areas except general practice.

Approximately 35 per cent of doctors practising in Ireland qualified outside of Ireland. Doctors who qualified outside of Ireland were more likely to exit the register.

The exit rate for Irish-qualified doctors was 5.8%, compared with 16% for those who qualified in the Western Pacific, 15.3% in Africa, 14.9% in Europe (excluding Ireland), 14.3% in the Americas, 10.4% in South-East Asia and 7.1% in the Eastern Mediterranean countries.

Exit rates are highest among doctors in the General Division, while the lowest rate is among doctors in the Trainee Specialist Division.

The highest proportion of those withdrawing from the register are above retirement age, followed by doctors aged 25-39, who had an exit rate of 18.8% for doctors who were trained in Irish medical schools.

“The relatively high proportion of young doctors exiting the register is a trend that requires action if this valuable resource is to be retained in the health system,” Ms Spillane said.

M/s Spillane also said that the active recruitment of international medical graduates to fulfill the needs of the Irish health system also has an ethical dimension given that the report reveals that 10% of doctors are from countries identified as having a critical shortage of health workers.

Female participation in the workforce and representation in the specialist division has increased in recent years. Among doctors under 35, women are in the majority of Irish graduated doctors in all divisions. Female doctors were more likely to work part time. Some 20 per cent of women worked part time, compared with less than 10 per cent of men.

M/s Spillane states that the Council is engaging with the  Department of Health, the HSE, and other organisations about the issues raised in the report.

“We will be exploring some of the issues emerging from this report in detail at our annual education and training symposium and allied with this, are currently working with the HSE and Health Research Board to award a new medical education research grant,” she said.

“Since the State makes significant investment in medical education and training, we need to understand how this can best develop future doctors who can continue to meet patient needs and expectations. The greater understanding of the changing demographics of doctors practising in Ireland provided by this report will inform our work in areas of registration, education and training. It’s important that all organisations involved in doctors’ education, training and continuing practice fully consider the findings as we look to shape the medical workforce of the future.”

Low-cost home-testing STI kits to be made available in Ireland


The Irish Family Planning Association will provide low-cost home testing kits to people concerned that they have contracted a sexually transmitted infection.

The new confidential testing service will test for the most common STIs including chlamydia, gonorrhoea and HIV.

Chlamydia trachomatis was the most frequently notified STI in Ireland in 2012, accounting for 48.4% of those who contracted an infection.

The number of notifications of gonorrhoea increased by 33% over 2011 and as a result the incidence rate is now the highest rate ever recorded.

“Any sexually active person may be exposed to an STI and we would advise them to get tested regularly, especially in light of the high rates of infection recorded among people in their 20s and 30s,” said Dr Tom Brett of Lloyds Online Doctor.

“In partnership with the IFPA we have developed a convenient and simple testing kit for chlamydia and gonorrhoea: You complete a short questionnaire to assess whether the online service is right for you,” he said.

The test is conducted at home and then users can post their sample directly to the laboratory for assessment.

“A home test kit will then be sent to your nominated address. Collect your sample at home then post it to our partner laboratory in Dublin. You will then be notified of your results via your confidential online record. The tests are as accurate as any test from a clinic and your results are completely confidential,” he added.

Poor sexual health is concentrated in young adults, with more than half of STI notifications among those aged 20 to 29 according to the HSE’s Health Protection Surveillance Centre report for 2012.

The standard sexual health service from Lloyds Online Doctor tests for genital chlamydia and genital gonorrhoea which together account for the majority of sexually transmitted infections in Ireland.

As both infections may not display symptoms, it is important that those concerned are tested as they can cause serious health problems.

An enhanced test also tests for HIV in addition to chlamydia and gonorrhoea.The standard service costs €50 and the enhanced service costs €70 including postage, compared to tests in clinics costing upwards of €125.

The IFPA and Lloyds Online Doctor stressed that any individual experiencing severe pain from a suspected STI infection should not use the testing service and should instead visit an IFPA clinic without delay.

‘‘STI rates in Ireland have risen significantly in recent years, and we lack an adequate framework to respond to the need for testing. Developing innovative ways of facilitating access to STI testing services must be a central priority for Ireland’s forthcoming National Sexual Health Strategy,’’ said Dr. Caitriona Henchion, IFPA Medical Director.

The service began to provide more accessible and affordable testing to increase early detection and treatment.

‘‘Eliminating barriers to STI testing services is critical, in particular for people living in remote areas who face challenges in accessing testing services located in public hospitals, and for people on low-income who can be required to pay upwards of €125 for a full screening at local STI clinics,’’ she said.

A near death experience could be a surge in electrical activity when our heart stops


Near death experiences in which people report “seeing the light” could be explained by increases in electrical activity in the brain after the heart stops, scientists have found. The Science study sheds light on the moment our lights go out

The first study to examine the neurophysiological state of the dying brain in animals has identified surges in activity, which suggest a level of consciousness after “clinical death” – when the heart stops beating and blood stops flowing to the brain.

Researchers analyzed the recordings of brain activity using electroencephalograms (EEGs) from nine anesthetized rats undergoing experimentally induced cardiac arrest.

Within the first 30 seconds after cardiac arrest, all of the rats displayed a widespread, transient surge of highly synchronized brain activity that had features associated with a highly aroused and conscious brain.

Almost identical patterns were found in the dying brains of rats undergoing asphyxiation, according to the research by the University of Michigan, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Whether and how the dying brain is capable of generating conscious activity has been vigorously debated.

Approximately 20% of cardiac arrest survivors report having had a near-death experience during clinical death.

The study found that after clinical death, the rats display brain activity patterns which were characteristic of conscious perception.

Lead study author Jimo Borjigin, Ph.D., associate professor of molecular and integrative physiology and associate professor of neurology at the University of Michigan Medical School, said: “We reasoned that if near-death experience stems from brain activity, neural correlates of consciousness should be identifiable in humans or animals even after the cessation of cerebral blood flow.”

She added: “This study tells us that reduction of oxygen or both oxygen and glucose during cardiac arrest can stimulate brain activity that is characteristic of conscious processing. It also provides the first scientific framework for the near-death experiences reported by many cardiac arrest survivors.”

Researchers said the prediction that they would find some signs of conscious activity in the brain during cardiac arrest was confirmed, but they were surprised by the high levels of activity.

Senior author anaesthesiologist George Mashour, assistant professor of anesthesiology and neurosurgery at the University said: “In fact, at near-death, many known electrical signatures of consciousness exceeded levels found in the waking state, suggesting that the brain is capable of well-organized electrical activity during the early stage of clinical death.”


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