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Transport minister says government wants an airport testing system in place by Christmas

Minister Michael McGrath says the hope is Level 5 gives us a decent Christmas.

 Government sources have said it is “really important” that people can return home to visit their loved ones this Christmas, adding that it would be wrong to stop it.
Government sources have said it is “really important” that people can return home to visit their loved ones this Christmas, adding that it would be wrong to stop it.
Image: Christina Finn

TRANSPORT MINISTER EAMON Ryan has said the government wants an airport testing system in place not just for Christmas but beyond so as to make it easier for people to travel.

Speaking on his way into Cabinet today, the minister said the government wants to reduce the risk and make sure the systems are in place to carry out testing at airports.

Ryan said such a move would give people the ability to take a test and “free them for the two-week rule” around restricting your movements.

The minister agreed that the aim is to have airport testing up and running in time for Christmas, but added “it is not just for Christmas, we have to think into next year, we are an island”.

He said the government needs to ensure connectivity for the island nation, so that people who need to travel can do so safely.

Ryan said they are looking to their European counterparts as to how they make it work, and said it has been agreed by government already that this is the approach it is following, and now it is a matter of implementing it.

He said he hoped such news would offer hope to people living abroad that they might get home to visit family and friends this December.

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath said the issue of Irish citizens returning home for Christmas has “not yet been considered” by Cabinet.

He added that one of the reasons why the country is at Level 5 restrictions is to give people the “best possible chance of having a decent December and a decent Christmas”.

McGrath said there are some encouraging signs that will be achieved, but said there is no room for complacency.

The Irish government is pushing to have a rapid testing regime up and running shortly to ensure that friends and families can travel to visit their loved ones this Christmas.

Government sources have said it would wrong to prevent people from returning home in December.

Last week, Cabinet agreed to align Ireland with the EU traffic light system.

Ireland has agreed to align with the new EU traffic light plan for international travel, which will see the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control publishing a weekly map of the EU using a three-stage colour system to indicate the level of risk in each area.

During an Oireachtas Transport Committee hearing this morning, executives from both Ryanair and Aer Lingus argued in favour of the adoption of the traffic light system.

Both pointed to what they said were the relatively few cases related to travel, with Ryanair CEO Eddie Wilson saying that “NPHET have got it wrong” on an number of occasions.

Last night, chief medical officer Dr. Tony Holohan said that the risks associated with international travel are “very, very high” and that NPHET has yet to consider any specific advice about travelling home for Christmas.

Wilson said that the data does not support the contention that air travel is unsafe.

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“We lost this summer due to government policy failures, advice not to travel and I see this morning we now have NPHET out again talking about that Christmas travel should be suspended. I’m sorry being worried is not a good enough for us,” he said.

We need data and there is no data out there that says that air travel is not safe. It is the safest place where people congregate due to a combination of 100% compliance with face masks, HEPA filters and policies and procedures from the European Centre of Disease Control.

Speaking during the same meeting, Aer Lingus interim CEO Dónal Moriarty also said that “air travel is safe”.

“Aer Lingus and other airlines have put in place measures in line with IATA and ECDC guidelines that very effectively mitigate the risk of transmission during travel,” he said.
Indeed, a recent IATA study indicated that risk of transmission on board an aircraft is as low as more than 27 million.

Sinn Féin’s Darren O’Rourke TD challenged this assertion, saying he’s looked at the IATA data and that “it’s only based on published reports”.

“It (the report) also says that there is no way to establish an exact tally of possible flight associated cases,” O’Rourke said.

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Moriarty responded: “I’ve accurately reflected what the report says. I’d also refer you and I think I did in my remarks to the HSPC data that was published about the low level of travel-related cases in terms of transmission onboard. You may be distrustful of what the IATA say but that is an agency of the state which is producing the data for Ireland.”

Holohan’s comments come after an Oireachtas committee was told today that a common Covid-19 testing protocol for European member states on international travel should be ready within “weeks”.

Such a move could allow Irish passengers to travel abroad under rigorous testing before flying.

When asked at an Oireachtas Committee last week if NPHET would have to sign off on any new travel system and testing regime, Junior Transport Minister Hildegarde Naughten said:

“This will be a Government decision.”

Today, the Dublin Airport Authority said pre-departure testing is something they want to put in place, stating it would ensure that loved ones, who have not seen their families for months, could return home to Ireland.

About the author:

Christina Finn & Rónán Duffy

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