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14-day travel restrictions could be waived under government's new Covid roadmap

Ministers are concerned Ireland has the most restrictive travel rules in Europe in the run up to Christmas.

THE 14-DAY restriction of movement guideline for those travelling into Ireland could be waived under the government’s new Covid-19 roadmap for reopening the country.

The new strategy for reopening the economy is due to be published on 14 September. 

The Taoiseach Micheál Martin said yesterday the plan will be “all-encompassing”.

He said travel had been “opening up” citing an increase in August’s figures. Martin said a new framework for travel will be included in the new roadmap.

The Department of Foreign Affairs advises against non-essential travel overseas. However, travel to a very limited set of locations – named on the Green list – is exempted from this advice.

Individuals arriving into Ireland from Green List countries do not have to restrict their movements upon entry into the country.

Speaking in the Dáil yesterday, Transport Minister Eamon Ryan said he has asked his officials to look at the international experience to see what other countries are doing in areas such as testing arrangements for air travel.

He said such measures could reduce the risk of increased air travel and may allow the requirement for a 14-day restriction on movement to be waived when someone comes here. 

Ryan said aviation and international travel are part of protecting livelihoods in this country “because, as a small, open island economy, we need connectivity to other countries”.

“To date, judging from the health data, the level of the virus coming in from international travel is very low,” he said.

“The Government now has to start preparing for the next six, nine or 18 months – a medium-term approach – where, in the absence of a vaccine, we have to manage the virus. Within that, we will have to manage international travel,” said Ryan.

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly has already confirmed that randomised testing is to be rolled out as part of a suite of measures at the airports.

“It is not our objective to test 30%, 40% or 50%. It is not a mass testing measure. It is part of one of the measures that we are bringing in,” he said.

New travel framework

Yesterday, the Taoiseach confirmed that there would not be revisions to the Green List until the new roadmap is published this month, despite the government’s commitment that the list would be updated and reviewed fortnightly.

The last time it was updated was 4 August, when five destinations were removed from the list.

Donnelly previously confirmed that travel restrictions on countries with high rates of coronavirus could be imposed. Research is under way in relation to those restrictions and could form part of the new roadmap.

There are some around the Cabinet table that have queried the government’s approach and messaging around travel during the pandemic. 

Tánaiste and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar spoke candidly to his party members this week, stating that international travel is an issue the government needs to deal with, and telling them that other EU countries are much less restricted when it comes to travel even though they are following the same trend as Ireland in terms of case numbers. 

He has previously spoken out about the mixed messaging from government around the Green List.

Ireland is an outlier in Europe when it comes to international travel. 

On 13 May, the European Commission presented guidelines and recommendations to help Member States gradually lift travel restrictions, with all the necessary safety and precautionary means in place.

The measures were intended to enable citizens to travel again after months of confinement, however the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) did not recommend to the government to sign up to the measures.

One month later, the commission launched ‘Re-open EU’, a web platform that contains essential information to allow the “safe relaunch of free movement and tourism across Europe … and to help people confidently plan their travels and holidays during the summer”. 

The ECDC has said available evidence “does not support recommending border closures, which will cause significant secondary effects and societal and economic disruption in the EU. Border closures result in substantial challenges to logistics, trade and the movement of people, particularly during a crisis period”.

Pointing to this guidance, some around Cabinet believe the uncertainty around travel needs to be dealt with urgently.

“We need a new international travel policy, perhaps freeing up low-risk areas with testing and tighter restrictions for high-risk countries,” said one minister. 

Countries abroad

However, government sources have said any changes to travel policy will be a hard sell when NPHET is still advocating for the mandatory quarantine for all travellers for two weeks upon arrival in the country, something government has already categorically ruled out.

“We have the strictest policy on international travel within the EU for the summer but are one of the countries seeing the highest increase in cases,” said another minister.

“We need a grown-up discussion on travel,” they said, adding that people need to travel for business, family reasons and holidays.

They highlighted that Irish people are the only ones who have to restrict their movements when they return home from most other countries – adding that Germans, Italians and many other EU citizens have been able to travel around Europe for months, with the rise in cases elsewhere appearing to be a lot lower than Ireland.

Ireland has a 14-day cumulative number of Covid-19 cases per 100,000 of 32. Meanwhile, other countries which have their borders open for travel are a lot lower down on the scale. 

Germany has a 14-day cumulative number of Covid-19 cases per 100,000 of just over 21, while the UK has a rate of 26.4, and Italy a rate of 26.9. 

Ministers have raised concerns about the strict restrictions still being in place at Christmas, particularly in relation to the UK.

“A decision needs to be made in the context of the new roadmap. Tighten up like Australia and New Zealand and turn a blind eye to Northern Ireland (and the open border) or align with the approach in the EU and UK and try and open up travel with risk-reducing safeguards,” said one senior source.

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