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Explainer: Is the EU 'traffic light system' the saviour of holidays in 2021?

Ireland wants to ‘align’ with the plans but may take some time to be fully on board.

The EU wants its citizens to be travelling again.
The EU wants its citizens to be travelling again.
Image: PA Images

IRELAND’S GREEN LIST becoming empty from Monday has put even more attention on the EU’s proposed traffic light system for travel.

The basis of the system was agreed on Friday and it will likely be signed by member states this coming week. 

The system is part of the European Commission’s desire to promote a common approach to restrictions that emphasises public health while also ensuring that Europeans can actually travel around the bloc. 

Ireland has signalled its intention to align with the travel plan but the government has also cautioned that the country may take some time to fully sign up to it.  

Potential problems likely to slow the adoption of the system include airport testing, securing the buy-in of health authorities and making sure the UK is also on board. 

Transport Minister Eamon Ryan and Minister of State at the Department of Transport Hildegarde Naughton both appeared before an Oireachtas Committee this week to provide an update with where Ireland stands on the plans. 

The pair made positive sounding noises about the government’s desire that Ireland not be left behind by the plan, but they were also clear that the country would not be signing up to something it was not ready for. 

So what is this plan and where do we stand?

The proposed EEA-wide travel policy is set to be finalised by the EU’s General Affairs Council on Tuesday, with hopes that agreement can be reached.

The EEA is made up of the 27 EU member states as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. It is also hoped that the UK will sign up to the new travel arrangement. 

The countries involved in the agreement will have the option of whether to adopt it or not, with the likelihood being that some may sign up to parts of it now and others at a later date. 

The overall agreement is likely to be very detailed and will contain many elements governing a common restrictions policy, but the traffic light system will be the key feature. 

The system is so called because under the plan countries would be labelled as either Green, Orange or Red.

If a country is labelled as either Green or Orange, then travellers arriving from those countries would not be subject to quarantine or other movement restrictions on arrival. 

Crucially, passengers coming from Red countries would be subject to Covid-19 testing prior to their departure or on arrival. It means that a testing regime is crucial to the full adoption of the traffic light system.

Countries can also implement other movement restrictions on passengers from Red countries. 

Countries are to be categorised as either Green, Orange or Red based on data from the European Centre of Disease Control (ECDC). Much like the Green List, it’s envisaged that the list would changed base on prevailing ECDC data. 

It’s as envisaged each category would be based on the following: 

(Note: ‘Incidence rate’ refers to 14-day incidence rate per 100,000)

  • GREEEN: Incidence rate of less than 25 and positivity rate of less than 4%. 
  • OREANGE: Incidence rate of less than 50 but positivity rate over 4%. Or, incidence rate at 25 to 150 but positivity rate under 4%
  • RED: Incidence rate above 150. Or, incidence rate above 50 and positivity rate above 4%.
  • GREY: Not enough information, e.g. fewer than 300 tests per 100,000 carried out

PastedImage-62945 Based on Friday's data 15 countries would have restriction-free travel. Source: Ryanair

So far, so straightforward

The use of ECDC data as a metric for deciding what colour a country is is not seen as controversial, with agreement on that likely to be easily achieved. 

What is more challenging however is how different member states implement the testing requirements for Red countries, or other associated restrictions they may also put in place..

Speaking this week, Naughton said that testing is one such “challenging” area that compromise may have to be found on. 

The junior minister outlined that some European countries are currently offering the option of testing arriving passengers either at pre-departure or on arrival as an alternative to restrictions.

She noted that a workable airport testing system must be “quick, cheap, available, and meets the public health threshold for accuracy, specificity and sensitivity”.

In her opening remarks, the junior minister said that the aviation industry was pushing for the adoption of rapid antigen testing as part of the solution.

The Aer Lingus CEO Sean Doyle later acknowledged this, saying that the development of antigen is advancing and that Alitalia and Lufthansa are already using them. 

Antigen tests are similar in appearance to pregnancy tests with results possible in 15-30 minutes. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has given emergency approval to one such test in the hope that it can improve testing in middle and low income countries but has raised questions over their use in travel settings.  

If antigen tests are not deemed appropriate, the more common PCR tests are therefore likely the way forward. 

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The Daa has said it has conducted research and has the potential to facilitate up to 15,000 pre-departure PCR tests per day at Dublin/Cork airports by the middle of this month. 

Whether this will be required or not is still a question, however.

Pushed by Sinn Féin’s Darren O’Rourke TD about when Ireland’s airport testing regime would be ready soon, Naughton said the government is awaiting Europe-wide agreement. 

“We’re working with the Daa, the Department of Health and our own department in trying to find a regime that will be workable and one that is is validated,” the junior minister said. 

We’re an island nation, we cannot work as one country, we have to work along a European approach. And we have stated that we will work broadly in line with that European approach. 

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, O’Rourke argued that the government need not wait for European co-operation to decide how it will approach airport testing. 

“We don’t need a lecture on the considerations that have to be made, we just need government to make a decision in relation to it. Just so we know that there are options there in terms of the testing regime that the government could implement,” he said. 

I would argue that we could have, or should have, been ready to go with the testing regime at our ports and airports from next Tuesday. 

Some time

The idea of Ireland being ready to adopt the system from Tuesday seems like a non-runner however, with Minister Eamon Ryan admitting that it will “take time” for this to happen

Within that though there is the acknowledgment that the aviation sector and those reliant on it need some travel to be happening. 

Shannon Airport has said for example that the effect of the pandemic has been “catastrophic”, adding that 46,000 jobs in the region depend on its activity. 

Fine Gael’s Clare TD Joe Carey said this was undoubtedly the case. 

“You have to remember that 40% of US FDI companies are located in the Shannon catchment area and the principal reason that they’re there is their proximity to Shannon airport,” he said. 

“We do need that connectivity for business, for tourism and right along the west coast of Ireland.

“It’s going to take some time to get back to 2019 air traffic levels. And part of that rebuilding will have to involve some testing, pre-departure testing, a combination of both, and also the adoption of the traffic light system.”

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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