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'We can't judge anyone for whatever decision they make': Irish emigrants on why they're travelling home this Christmas

Many people are unsure of what to do and critical of mixed mesages from the government.

Liadh Casey
Liadh Casey

MANY IRISH PEOPLE living abroad are unsure of whether or not to come home for Christmas given the Covid-19 restrictions in place.

Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan recently said coming home for Christmas would not be deemed “essential” travel.

Holohan last week said many other countries are “in a deteriorating situation” in terms of the virus.

“If we make the progress that we hope we can continue to make and find ourselves at the beginning of December with a much improved situation, even from where we are at the moment, one of the biggest risks will be the importation of disease through international travel.”

Also speaking last week, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said it was “too soon” for people to book flights home.

“We’re not in a position at this point to advise people that it’s safe to come home for Christmas. And I know that’s a tough message to hear but that is the case at the moment,” he said.

Many Irish people had already booked their flights home at that stage – some are unsure of what to do, but others have decided to stick to their plans and come home.

There has been mixed messaging over what people should and shouldn’t do in terms of foreign travel.

Mandatory quarantine is not in force in Ireland. Nor is it a legal requirement for a person to restrict their movements for 14 days after their arrival from another country, but as one of the key measures for stopping the spread of Covid-19 it is very strongly advised.

Speaking on Wednesday, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said if people do need to come home from Europe for Christmas, “there is a clear traffic light system in place with protocols you need to follow”.

“I think that is a pretty common sense approach,” he told Newstalk.

From midnight on 29 November, travellers arriving into Ireland from so-called ‘red’ regions in the new traffic light system will be advised that they no longer need to restrict their movements once they pass a Covid-19 PCR test (usually a nasal swab) five days following their arrival here.

Travellers arriving from orange regions do not have to restrict their movements if they carry the results of a negative Covid-19 test taken at least three days before their arrival.

Those who do not have a negative test upon arrival in Ireland can have a test taken five days after their arrival. Passengers will be asked to restrict their movements until they get the test.

Impact on mental health

Liadh Casey works as a psychologist in Edinburgh. The 25-year-old said people’s mental health needs to be taken into consideration during any conversation about what is and isn’t viewed as essential travel.

Liadh plans to come home to Cork next month so she can spend Christmas with her family.

She originally moved to Edinburgh in 2017 to do a masters degree in psychology and now works in a centre that helps young people living with mental health issues.

Liadh said if people flying from Dublin to London and vice versa for work is seen as essential travel, flying home should be too.

“Personally, working in mental health, I think this is probably the most essential travel you’ll make all year.

“There will be a bigger impact on people who can’t see their families for Christmas if they can’t come home, than I think Leo Varadkar and Tony Holohan are even considering.

“Christmas is a very lonely time for a lot of people, it’s not a nice time for a lot of people, and the only way to get through that is through the support of your family,” Liadh told TheJournal.ie.

Her father died a few years ago and, as is the case for many families, Christmas is particularly difficult after a bereavement.

“To be honest, I didn’t ever consider not coming home. Christmas is a weird time for us anyway, so I just wouldn’t have done it to my mum and siblings. You definitely need to be with your family.

“Even if it was the case where I had to take a month or whatever off, I was always going to come home.”

Liadh is a key worker so can get tested for Covid-19 before she comes home to make sure she is virus-free, and will restrict her movements in Ireland.

She has been working from home during the pandemic so she is not meeting many people, and her office closes for two weeks over Christmas.

“A lot of my stuff is based at home – online meetings with clinical psychologists, schools, things like that, so it’s all on Zoom anyway.

“I was humming and hawing but then I was thought there was no point of me being here when I’m not even going to be working, it’s not like I’m taking time off.”

‘We’ll get home somehow’

Liadh said all her closest friends in Scotland are also returning to Ireland for Christmas. She booked her flights earlier this month and plans to stay for about three weeks.

Liadh knows of at least four people whose flights have been changed to date.

“I hope that mine are not going to change, but I don’t know if that’s being a bit naive. There is talk of us driving of one of us driving and getting the ferry from Glasgow to Belfast and then driving down, but it’s a good 18 hours. We’ll get home somehow.

“If my flights do go ahead, I’ll get tested before I go, be very careful in the airport and isolate for a week.

“Then I won’t be stupid, I won’t be going out, but at least I’ll be able to have Christmas dinner at the other side of the table, rather than in a different room to my family.”

‘Incredibly guilty’

Ciarán from Dublin is currently living in London. He also intends to come home for Christmas, and would consider getting the ferry if his flight is cancelled.

“I have some friends who are getting the ferry home, they’re not even bothering trying flights, they’re going straight for the ferry in first week of December.

“I don’t think my flight is going to be cancelled. I had the fear for a little while that it might, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

The 31-year-old moved to England just over a year ago – before anyone had heard of the term Covid-19.

“I came back over to London after Christmas and then the pandemic struck in March. I ended up going home in March thinking I was going home for maybe a long weekend, but ended up staying home for a couple of months.”

Ciarán can also work remotely and has been in his office just once since March. He booked his flight home for Christmas in early September.

“I thought everything would be fine, but then in the last couple of weeks obviously there has been messaging that is making me feel incredibly guilty for having booked my flights home.

“I’m still going to come home because the messaging has been so incredibly mixed. They’re putting all these measures in place to allow people to come home, but then also saying ‘don’t come home’, it’s quite confusing.”

As he can work remotely, Ciarán hasn’t booked a return flight yet but plans to stay for about a month. He said he will likely get a PCR test so he only needs to restrict his movements for a few days. If he can’t do this, he plans to quarantine for two weeks.

“I wasn’t planning on coming home and running rampant around the place.

“I’m staying within the guidelines in terms of keeping myself safe and quarantining and doing all the things that you’re recommended to do. So as long as people do that, I don’t know what else we can do really.”

Ciarán plans to fly home in the coming days to avoid any pre-Christmas rush. He said telling people it’s “too soon” to book flights doesn’t make sense as it could lead to a larger number of people travelling home closer to Christmas, making airports and planes more crowded.

“If we keep asking people to postpone coming home, everyone’s going to be in a rush to come home at the same time, and that’s when there might be issues, when there might be busy airports.

“I very consciously decided to come home early so that I could miss the rush and quarantine for enough time and that I would be able to spend the majority of December with my family.”

Ciarán said if he can’t fly home, he’s worried about the impact this would have on his mental health.

“I haven’t even properly considered having to stay here really and how that would impact me in terms of my mental health – when I say I haven’t considered it, it’s because I don’t want to consider it.”

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‘A privileged comment’

Kate Smith (31) is originally from Dublin but has lived in Vancouver in Canada for years. She plans to fly home early next month and stay for four weeks, quarantining for the first two.

Kate said she considered getting a PCR test but the cost of the test, close to €200, is the “number one barrier” so she will quarantine instead.

She has also been working remotely during the pandemic and can work from Ireland.

WhatsApp Image 2020-11-20 at 15.44.35 Kate Smith

“My parents want me to come home. I’m going to be isolating within the family home, but I’ll be in a separate room with my own bathroom so they don’t mind that at all,” she told us.

“My brother just recently has a baby with his wife in September. That’s the first grandchild in the family so it’s a big deal, that’s my main push to get home.”

Kate’s flights have already been changed twice but she’s hopeful they won’t be cancelled.

“I do expect there to probably be some more movement, but the fact that I’m going for four weeks and that I’m quite flexible, being able to work remotely, I’m not too worried about that.”

Kate said she understands why the government is telling people to only travel if they have to, but said urging them to postpone booking flights isn’t fair – particularly for those who live further afield.

I totally get where they’re coming from, it’s a pandemic, but the one thing that irked me a bit about Leo’s comments, and the attitude of ‘don’t book yet’ is that it’s a bit privileged in my eyes because especially in long-haul travel you need to book months in advance in order for your normal person to be able to afford it.

“So, encouraging people to wait until, what, two weeks beforehand in December is just not practical for the majority of people when it comes to cost.

“Instead of discouraging travel, I think (the government) should be encouraging safe and responsible travel.”

Kate knows several Irish people who are coming from Canada for Christmas, as well as others who are staying put.

She said some people are of the view that it’s “really irresponsible” for people to travel home, but individuals have many different reasons for needing to travel or be with their families.

“I keep saying to people here, people who are struggling with the decision, that we can’t judge anyone else for whatever decision they make.

“Everyone’s mental health is different in this pandemic and you need to do whatever is is right for you, so I don’t think one person can say something as essential for another person.”

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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