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The new traffic light system - which Ireland plans to bring into effect on 8 November - should allow for relatives and friends to return home to Ireland for Christmas this year. Shutterstock/Dux Croatorum

NPHET yet to give advice on issue of people travelling home from abroad for Christmas

Irish aviation regulators are calling for mandatory pre-departure testing instead of quarantine restrictions.

LAST UPDATE | 27 Oct 2020

CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER Tony Holohan has said public health experts have yet to give any consideration to whether people should travel home from abroad for Christmas.

Speaking at a press briefing this evening, Holohan said if there is a need to give consideration or advice to government in the weeks ahead on the matter, the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) will certainly do so.

He told that it is NPHET’s position that the risks associated with international travel are “very, very high”.

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

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

Holohan’s comments come after an Oireachtas committee was told today that a comon 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.

Holohan said he was aware of the decision made last week about the EU traffic light system. 

While he said the portion of cases associated with international travel is “very small”, NPHET would be concerned about anything that is going to “weaken” the defenses in place in Ireland.

He said the scale of the virus in both Europe and the US is “very concerning”, adding that it is a “rapidly deteriorating situation”. 

“Movement of populations for any reasons is seriously challenged at this moment in time,” he said.

The chief medical officer acknowledged that the government has decisions to make in terms of what Europe is considering and mandating web it comes to international travel.

Holohan said he would “absolutely” and “totally” deny any insinuations that he is being alarmist, stating that the risks around travel are very substantial.

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.”

She said obviously the government will consult the Department of Health and public  health officials, but the decision would be made by government

Next week, the chief medical officer will discuss air travel advice and the potential for Covid-19 testing at airports before the Oireachtas Transport Committee.

Earlier today, the committee was told the EU Aviation Safety Agency and ECDC have been tasked with developing a common testing regime to eliminate the need for quarantine and other restrictions.

Director for Aviation in the European Commission, Filip Cornelis told the Oireachtas Transport Committee today that while some airports in Europe are using rapid testing and antigen tests, it is “clear that we need a common approach” in terms of what tests are used throughout Europe. 

“We need mutual recognition” of the testing being used in each country, he said, adding that there is no point in rolling out a testing regime if other countries “will not recognise the test taken by the person travelling”.

Irish aviation ‘devastated’ 

In his written opening statement to the committee, head of corporate affairs of the Irish Aviation Authority Paul Brandon said the pandemic has devastated the aviation industry in Ireland and that air traffic levels have now reverted back to levels seen in the late 1980s.

He said it could be 2024 or 2025 before the industry recovers fully.

Pre-departure testing as part of new traffic light system should allow for the effective reopening of aviation, he said.

Under the new traffic light plan, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control will publish a weekly map of the EU using a three-stage colour system to indicate the level of risk in each area.

The new traffic light system – which Ireland plans to bring into effect on 8 November – should allow for relatives and friends to return home to Ireland for Christmas this year.

In terms of allowing anyone wishing to leave the country, the National Virus Reference Laboratory (NVRL) is currently carrying out a validation process on LAMP testing, it is understood. If approved by the Department of Health, the new test could be incorporated into Ireland’s testing regime in order to open up international travel again.

Currently, the only validated test recognised in Ireland is the PCR test. After someone is swabbed, the PCR test has to be sent to a lab for analysis. The new LAMP test does not, and can deliver results in an hour or so. 

The European Commission has advocated to harmonise the easing of restrictions since June, said Cornelis.

Pre-departure testing

As a society we need to live with Covid-19, Brandon told committee members, stating that effective harmonisation of European pre-departure testing should be “rolled out as soon as possible”.

He said passengers need to know when they make a booking that their flight will take place, and that the rules won’t change. 

If someone tests positive, they simply don’t travel, he said.

Testing will be an “important piece of the jigsaw”, said Brandon, who agreed that a EU-wide testing system is required. 

He said passengers could be tested on the same day as travelling or a day or two in advance. There may be scope to use tests that are less than the gold standard as you are testing to see if someone is negative rather than positive, he said.

Brandon said the sector needs to see a recovery happen from next summer onwards.

Safely reopening borders with a coordinated testing regime”would be a lifeline”, said Brandon, but added that the true benefit will only emerge if all countries implement a recognised testing system. 

The committee was told by Cornelis that further work is underway by the ECDC which is working with the commission on expanding health safety guidance around testing protocol – though he said it would be guided not mandatory. 

Passengers lacking confidence

He said the problem for travel restrictions is that  passengers are lacking confidence due to ever-changing rules. He said quarantining being imposed in some countries defeats the purpose of travel for many.

There is a general perception in the sector that as long as no vaccine is available there will is a need for common testing protocol for all EU countries, he added.

The Commission has observed that some states wish to impose border restrictions, despite this not actually being a recommendation from the ECDC, said Cornelis. 

The way to get passengers to travel again is through a “harmonised and stable system” of measures, “which should not be quarantine”, he said.

In terms of travel between the EU and the US, the new protocol for testing due shortly could also be useful to open up travel to America, the committee was told. 

While such measures will be rolled out in Europe first, Cornelis said he could see the scope of working with other countries that adopt similar protocols. He said the US would be an “obvious candidate” but said there it is “still a little bit too early to take those steps as far as we are concerned”. 

The IAA managed 38,172 flights in September 2020, compared to almost 110,000 in the same month last year, committee members were told today.

Brandon warned that the levels of air traffic in Ireland are consistently below the rest of the European air traffic network which he said was “deeply worrying”.

Brandon also said that Ireland should take a lead in promoting a standard approach to airport departure testing and the removal of quarantine requirements across Europe.

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