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'Garbled messaging' around travel 'green list' to be discussed by Cabinet

Some ministers do not want to undermine the notion of Ireland as an open economy.

Image: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

THE GREEN LIST will not be published today due to the Cabinet meeting to sign off on the measure being postponed.

Cabinet has to sign off on the list, but Taoiseach Micheál Martin remains in Brussels today, where an EU summit is taking place.

It’s understood that the list will be published this week. 

Following the delay, there have been reports of tensions among coalition partners over the publication of the list.

However, a number of ministers have told TheJournal.ie that there are “no differences” between parties on the matter of the publication of the list, which is set to be “very short”.

There are understood to be “slight differences” in the emphasis that some ministers place on people only travelling for essential reasons versus those not wanting to undermine the notion of Ireland as an open economy.

It is noted that this is only one emphasis however, and is not along party lines.

The main concern among those that sit at the Cabinet table is around the messaging:

Once the list is published should the message be that Irish people can travel to green list countries – with caution – without having to restrict their movements for 14 days afterwards when they return to Ireland:

For countries that are not on the green list, should the message be travellers should restrict their movements for 14 days after returning?

Or should the message be that non-essential travel remains the advice, even after the publication of the green list – despite the obvious contradictions this conjures up for the public?

Green list

The green list and possible ‘air bridge’ agreements for Ireland have been talked about since the end of May.

Travel advice, as of today, remains that there should be no non-essential travel.

Currently, people arriving to Ireland from overseas – with limited exceptions such as essential workers – are required to fill in a passenger locator form and restrict their movements for 14 days.

Anyone crossing the border from Northern Ireland will not be subject to restrictions on their movements.

When it was announced last month that the green list would be published, some government sources said the country was in a “different space” – the country was reopening, the number of cases was falling.

There is a sense within some government circles that things have changed now, where the situation globally seems unpredictable.

However, a number of other senior sources noted that Ireland is behind the curve when it comes to reopening the country to international travel, with many EU countries allowing travel, with restrictions, at the beginning of the month.

Agriculture Minister Dara Calleary told RTÉ’s The Week in Politics yesterday that the government “will make tough calls, we’re not going to progress the roadmap unless it’s safe to do so.”.

“It might not be popular to do so, but unless it’s safe and unless public health stands up we cannot do so,” he said.

However, he defended the need for a green list, stating:

“The green list is going to be established purely because we’re going to be living with Covid-19 for some time.

“And we do have to have a structure. The advice is non-essential travel is still out, it’s not recommended, but we have to have a structure in place for business travel, for necessary business travel.

“We cannot shut down the country.”

Minister for State for European Affairs Thomas Byrne told RTÉ’s News at One today that his view is the list will mean “if you have to go” to one of the listed countries you will not have to quarantine.

He said the message will be only essential journeys should be taken.

Mixed messaging

A number of ministers have said that it is important the public does not receive further mixed messaging around travel.

This is compounded by advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) which continues to advise against all non-essential travel, despite a green list being published this week.

Some around the Cabinet table believe the government’s message once the green list is published must be clear: that people can travel to countries on the green list – but they must exercise a high level of caution.

“Some sort of garbled message won’t work,” said one minister, stating the government should not publish a green list, only to tell people you shouldn’t really go.

It is argued that the country will be living with the virus for some time to come, maybe years, and therefore a framework for restoring some level of normal travel will need to be formulated.

It was also pointed out that the Department of Foreign Affairs has four levels of warning when it comes to travel: Don’t travel/no non-essential travel/travel with a high level of caution/travel with normal caution.

There seems to be low awareness of among some in government and NPHET of this system, some sources pointed out, stating it could be used in any future messaging when it comes to communicating travel advice in relation to the green list.

Those returning home, not just holidaymakers

There are also concerns the narrative surrounding the green list relates to holidaymakers. The list will also ensure that people can return home to loved ones who perhaps have not seen their families in a number of months.

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The push that “no non-essential travel advice” should remain in place, even when the green list is published, could win out, despite the confusion this might cause.

What message ministers opt for will be a matter of discussion when the Cabinet meeting is eventually held.

“It is a changing and evolving situation and we need to change and evolve with it,” said one government source, who added that while there are differing opinions at Cabinet around the messaging, it will all feed into a final decision that has to be reached.

Solidarity slipping

While the new coalition partners grapple with the travel issue, there are concerns the show of solidarity by those in opposition throughout the crisis could be slipping.

Up until this point, there has been cross-party unity when it came to the measures, but those new to government appear to have their back up with Sinn Féin and Labour “making political potshots” that have been deemed “not particularly helpful”.

There was a call for more unity in the approach by some parties. The criticism of the rhetoric and the use of the word ‘green’ for the green list and the message it might send has also been shot down.

Those in power state that the reality is we are talking to adults and the government wants to encourage a “common sense approach”. There has been a call for a sense of realism, particularly around the reports about American tourists arriving in Ireland, when the numbers are low.

There has also been a call for an end to “scaremongering”.

A date for the publication of the green list is now not known, due to concern that tomorrow’s scheduled Cabinet meeting might also be called off.

The Taoiseach remains in Brussels today, with negotiations set to resume rather late in the day at 4 pm, spreading doubt that Martin would make it back to Ireland by tomorrow.

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