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European agency to amend travel advice following criticism from top Irish health officials

The ECDC said elements of its advice around international travel “need to be modified”.

Image: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

THE EUROPEAN CENTRE For Disease Control & Prevention has said it will change its advice around the risks associated with international travel after it issued “unfortunate” guidelines which were criticised by Ireland’s Department of Health last month. 

A letter to the ECDC in December from Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Colette Bonner followed Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan’s public criticism of ECDC advice which said air travel should not be considered high-risk for spreading Covid-19. 

The advice, published in early December, said imported cases of Covid-19 “account for a very small proportion of all detected cases and are unlikely to significantly increase rate of transmission.”

Dr Bonner outlined “serious concerns” expressed by Public Health experts in Ireland over recent ECDC publications on international travel in a letter to the European agency.

She outlined concerns about the ECDC’s Covid-19 Aviation Health Safety Protocol, published on 1 July in conjunction with European Union Aviation Safety Agency and an addendum to these guidelines, published on 2 December. 

This addendum, which was publicly criticised by Dr Holohan, “appears to ignore the significance of international travel as a potential amplifier of infection, especially in those countries that have a achieved a low level” of Covid-19 infection, said Dr Bonner.  

Dr Bonner’s letter was sent one day before UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed a new strain of Covid-19 was spreading rapidly throughout parts of England. 

In response, ECDC in late December told Ireland’s Department of Health that “there are elements of phrasing in this [addendum] that we now believe need to be modified and that we are now proposing to change.”

The ECDC also recognised that separating its conclusion that travel should be discouraged and limited to essential journeys from its 2 December addendum “was unfortunate”.
Following publications of its addendum, numerous media outlets gave coverage to the advice that said travel does not increase risk of infection. 

“We had not anticipated that readers of the one document [addendum] would not read, or would choose to ignore, the other document. 

The ECDC said it is now proposing changes to its Covid-19 Aviation Health Safety Protocol to address these issues. 

NPHET had previously expressed serious concerns around people travelling home to Ireland from abroad for Christmas. 

In her letter, Dr Bonner also criticised the ECDC’s study of transmission risks associated with Christmas which she said “underplays the significance of international travel as a potential amplifier” for transmission “particularly in relation to leisure travel over the coming festive season”.  

According to ECDC guidance: “Member States should always admit their own nationals and EU citizens and their family members resident in their territory, and should facilitate swift transit through their territories.”

The Deputy Chief Medical Officer in her letter, however, said EU States should be allowed provide advice to their own citizens based on a country’s epidemiological situation.

Speaking last week, Dr Holohan said importation of the virus in recent weeks from international travel has been minimal but that the UK variant was likely first brought into Ireland in the first week of November. 

The UK variant was detected in 45.7% of 98 positive cases recently analysed, according to NPHET virologist Dr Cillian de Gascun, who said this week that the strain is likely to become the dominant variant in Ireland. 

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Last week, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn said of the concerns raised by Dr Bonner: “There’s ongoing engagement with the ECDC and I’m sure they’re they’re considering it in light of all that’s happened across Europe in recent weeks.”

The ECDC, in response to Dr Bonner said: “Let me assure you that ECDC takes seriously all comments by the Member States and we will discuss internally how to improve our internal procedures when developing such guidance in particular when it entails collaboration with other institutions.”

The Government this week agreed that all passengers arriving into Ireland will need a negative PCR test taken 72 hours before departure from Saturday. 

Travellers from Britain and South Africa have had to provide a negative PCR test since last week.

Arrivals from Great Britain and South Africa will continue to require a negative/not detected PCR test and must continue to isolate for 14 days, even if they take a second test after arrival.

The Cabinet agreed last week that the provision should be extended to all passengers from all countries.

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