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The 'green list': How other island-based nations have handled the re-opening of international travel

Some island nations are doing comparatively well in suppressing the virus.

A passenger wearing a mask is seen with their baggage after arriving on a flight from Melbourne at Sydney Airport (3 July).
A passenger wearing a mask is seen with their baggage after arriving on a flight from Melbourne at Sydney Airport (3 July).
Image: AAP/PA Images

WHAT ARE OTHER island nations doing around the world in relation to travel?

In combating the spread of the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 the most effective measure has been to severely limit people’s movements. In Ireland, a debate is continuing over whether the country is doing all it can to make the most of its geographical position.

Though the shape of the Irish government’s ‘green list’ isn’t entirely clear as yet, it’s widely expected to include a list of countries to which Irish people can travel without having to restrict their movements for 14 days afterwards.

It’s expected that countries with a lower average daily caseload per 100,000 population than Ireland will get on the list (Ireland’s average is currently at 4.79).

The Cabinet is due to discuss the list tonight at 7pm, before possibly approving and publishing it. It was first due to be published on 9 July, but this was delayed until yesterday, 20 July.

The process was delayed further by Taoiseach Micheál Martin being required to stay in Brussels for a crucial European Council meeting for longer than had been planned.

The mooted green list has had a troubled history to date: not only has it been repeatedly delayed, it’s also been labelled as confusing to citizens, and even dismissed as a misnomer (even children know that green means “go” – but we’re still being told not to undertake any non-essential trips).

“Ireland is in a unique position in that we are an island and we can control our borders,” Dublin-based GP Maitiú O’Tuathail said on RTÉ Radio yesterday.

“New Zealand should be what we’re aiming for,” he said, echoing calls made recently by other health professionals. 

Protests that there shouldn’t be a green list at all are countered by the argument that Ireland cannot close itself off to international travel, without having a clear time in mind for when the State could open back up again.

There is also the argument that international travel is not a major contributory factor for coronavirus infection rates in Ireland – accounting for no more than 3% of all new confirmed cases since 25 April. 

Travel abroad Source: Covid-19 Hub

Added to that is that Ireland is simply following what some other countries have already done: most other countries have already opened up to some international travel.

This includes other island-based nations, some of which are doing well in suppressing the virus.

Here’s a quick glance at what those nations are doing – and why Northern Ireland and connectivity means that direct comparisons aren’t entirely useful.

New Zealand

xinhua-photos-of-the-day Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

New Zealand is the example most often cited as the model Ireland should adopt. In fact, the NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern used Ireland as an example of what New Zealand could end up having to do, if it wasn’t careful in its Covid-19 response. 

The New Zealand border has been closed to all but New Zealand citizens and residents up until the beginning of this month, with the exception of healthcare workers, essential workers, or government workers.

But at the start of July, New Zealand closed its borders to its own citizens too, in response to an accelerating influx of citizens fleeing coronavirus outbreaks overseas.

Its national carrier Air New Zealand put a three-week freeze on new bookings and the government discussed limiting capacity with other airlines, in order to deal with the influx and a lack of quarantine facilities.

All people entering New Zealand must wear a facemask from the moment they disembark from the plane, and then go immediately into managed isolation or quarantine facilities for at least 14 days. There is no cost to people in these facilities for accommodation, food or associated basic needs.

Up until 7 July, New Zealand had gone 67 days without any cases of coronavirus in the community; at that point, all of its 22 active cases were in managed quarantine facilities for New Zealanders coming home.

Since New Zealand went into lockdown in March, nearly 27,000 people have gone through managed isolation and quarantine. The nation of five million, a similar population to Ireland, has recorded just under 2,000 cases of Covid-19, and 22 deaths.

Australia

Australia closed its international borders to all but returning citizens and permanent residents in late March as the pandemic spread.

All returning travellers now have to stay in mandatory hotel quarantine for 14 days, stretching resources in the country’s main cities. The cost of these mandatory stays are put onto those who need to quarantine, and cost thousands of Australian dollars.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the cap on returning Australians of 4,000 a day would remain in place until the Melbourne epidemic is contained (the normal cap in place is 8,000 a day).

Australia has been relatively unscathed by the Covid-19 crisis. With a population of 25 million, it’s had a total of 12,069 cases (Ireland has had double that, at over 25,000 cases).

It’s only recently that Australia has recommended that people wear masks in public if they are unable to observe proper social distancing when in the Melbourne region – which was plunged into a six-week, stay-at-home lockdown at the beginning of July.

Japan

Japan is currently refusing entry to non-Japanese people who have been to any of over 100 designated countries across the world within the past 14 days, including Ireland, the US, the UK, Germany, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

All people entering Japan, including Japanese nationals, will have to undergo a quarantine at a designated location and may not use public transportation for 14 days upon arrival.

A gradual reopening of Japan’s borders is due to take place, but will prioritise countries with which Japan has strong cultural ties: Vietnam, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and Taiwan, for example.

Malta

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Malta Source: VisitMalta

Malta is allowing travellers from a long list of countries, and will add and take from that list as cases fluctuate.

Ireland had been on the original list of countries from which people were allowed to travel without quarantine, and remains on the list today. More recently, Malta added the UK to the list.

Persons arriving will, however, be asked to complete a Passenger Locator Form and Travel Declaration Form.

Malta, with a population of 440,000, has had a total of 677 cases and 9 deaths. It has carried out over 113,000 tests – a quarter of its population.

Calls for the New Zealand model

A number of TDs, co-leader of the Social Democrats Róisín Shortall among them, have pushed for Ireland to adopt New Zealand’s approach. 

“We need to see mandatory quarantining or double testing of people coming in from countries of high rates of infection if we are to replicate that success here,” Shortall said.

Shortall also questioned why the Government relaxed the rules by changing travel advice for incoming travellers from self-isolation to restricted movements:

Even when a green list of countries is published, the Government is still advising against non-essential travel, which is simply adding to the confusion. There is a shocking lack of clarity on the issue and we simply cannot continue like this.

But it’s not quite that simple.

For a start, Ireland is a member of the EU, and as part of the Single Market, is a proponent of the four freedoms – one of which is freedom of movement, which allows EU citizens to move freely between member states. This is something that neither New Zealand or Japan had to consider when they decided to restrict incoming visitors.

The border with Northern Ireland is also a concern – even if tighter restrictions were brought in, citizens from Northern Ireland (and possibly elsewhere, depending on the UK’s green list) could still travel across the Irish border freely. 

What’s yet to be decided?

As it stands, there are concerns among ministers about the public’s understanding of the existing travel advice. It is believed government wants to reiterate the message to citizens – particularly that the advice is that no one has to quarantine if they arrive in Ireland, but simply has to restrict their movements for 14 days.

It is believed the Cabinet will move to agree a clear message at its meeting tonight, and will repeat it in the coming days. There are concerns that communications regarding the virus have slipped with the new government, and moves are now afoot to get the messaging back on track.

Ministers believe an agreed approach to international travel needs to be put in place as the crisis could go on for years and the government cannot be expected to prevent people from travelling for business and to see their loved ones for that long.

- with reporting from Christina Finn and AFP

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