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'I hope we don't get back to this': Concerns in government that NPHET could push back against return of foreign travel

The government has earmarked a return to foreign travel on 19 July.

IRELAND HAS SIGNED up to the Digital Green Certificate system and the country aims to adhere to European regulations around travel in the coming weeks, a government spokesperson has said.

Officials are said to be “working around the clock” to get the EU system up and running in time for 19 July, the date on which the government has said it hopes non-essential international travel can return.

The certificate will facilitate free movement of EU citizens during the pandemic in the European Union and European Economic Area countries such as Norway and Iceland.

However, some in government circles believe another public disagreement between government and the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) about the return of foreign travel could be on the cards. 

Focus this week has been the Delta variant of Covid-19 and how it could impact the reopening of indoor hospitality on 5 July, but ministers believe the next big issue will be the resumption of non-essential travel into and out of the country two weeks later. 

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar clarified last weekend that young people who are not fully vaccinated can travel abroad this summer, despite contrary advice from Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan last week.

People under the age of 30 are unlikely to have both vaccine doses until September at the earliest, and the CMO urged this cohort of people not to travel this summer if they are not fully vaccinated.

There are now concerns that public health experts will warn against resuming travel in July, with sources stating that they expect more mixed messaging on the issue.

Sources indicated that NPHET’s briefing on foreign travel does not align with government policy on the issue.

And this evening, a spokesperson for the Tánaiste told The Journal that Varadkar was simply outlining the government’s position on international travel, which it had partly set out a number of weeks ago, when he made his comments at the weekend.

A comprehensive campaign on the new EU Digital Certificate is expected to be launched by the government ahead of 19 July.

It is expected to outline that those who have been vaccinated, those who have received a negative PCR test result, or those who have had Covid-19 in the past nine months will be able to travel abroad. 

“I just hope we don’t get back into this space of ‘you can travel but you really shouldn’t',” said one source, who highlighted that many families have booked flights abroad already to see loved ones, and that it wouldn’t be fair to prevent non-essential travel at this stage.

Minister of State Ossian Smyth told RTÉ’s Claire Byrne programme today that while 19 July is the date the government’s expects foreign travel to resume, the government “can’t guarantee that”. 

He said the fact that the UK had to delay their full reopening by a number of weeks showed that “there is still risk attached” to re-opening, and that there was “no guarantee” about a given date.

But he added that a return of international travel on 19 July remains “the current plan”. If numbers stay down, Ireland will be able to allow foreign travel to return, he said.

Under the EU Digital Certificate scheme, certificates will have a bar code that can be scanned at airports which will allow people to travel or not. 

The certificate contains only the necessary key information such as name, date of birth, date of issuance, relative information about vaccine test or recovery and a unique identifier.

The data is expected to remain on the certificate, and will not be stored or retained when a certificate is verified in another member state, the minister said.

Each certificate will contain a QR code with a digital signature to protect against falsification. When the certificate is checked, the QR code is scanned and the signature is verified.

The signature can be checked using special software that can run from an app on a phone or any other device that can read a QR code.  

Passengers who don’t have a certificate will be required carry documentation of a negative test or vaccination proof to travel, though that process may take longer, the minister added.

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