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Taoiseach asks for review of travel restrictions after Keelings fruit pickers controversy

The arrival of 189 workers was criticised by the Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan this evening.

Image: Shutterstock/CLICKMANIS

Updated Apr 17th 2020, 9:10 PM

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has said that travel restrictions at ports and airports will be reviewed after Keelings Fruit revealed that it flew 189 workers from Bulgaria to Ireland this week to pick fruit.

Keelings Fruit said that only 40 people locally applied for work as seasonal fruit pickers.

The Irish company’s decision to fly workers in during unprecedented restrictions on movement across the world was criticised and questioned by politicians and members of the public – who raised concerns about social distancing measures on flights, if checks were carried out at Dublin Airport, and whether protective measures are being taken by Keelings.

The government had initially said that “seasonal workers are critical to the agricultural sector in terms of harvesting, planting and tending functions, especially in the current season.”

However, speaking at the Department of Health briefing this evening, Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan said he was not comfortable with the company’s decision to fly in the workers.

Holohan said he had only become aware of the situation earlier today and said the actions of companies in this manner were “not consistent” with public health advice issued around travel.

Taoiseach’s statement

Tonight, Varadkar said that he agrees with the assessment of the CMO, and that the advice for ports and airports, and possibly foreign workers too, would now be reviewed.

He said:

“I share the discomfort expressed by the Chief Medical Officer about the report of a large number of people coming to Ireland earlier this week to work in the horticulture sector.

“We need to keep our airports and ports open so essential goods and essential workers can get in and out of the country and Irish citizens and residents can return home.

“However, we need to keep travel to a minimum and ensure that passengers are interviewed on arrival and that quarantine is observed.

I have therefore asked for an urgent review of the current rules and procedures to be carried out over the weekend.

“That review will be considered by the Cabinet Committee on Covid-19 on Monday and any changes that are necessary in light of that review will be made.”


Keelings’ statement

In a statement, Keelings said it had advertised for seasonal work positions locally for the past two weeks and that it had received 40 applications locally. 

The company said the initial 27 applications locally “falls significantly short” of its labour needs.  

Sinn Féin’s Health spokesperson, Louise O’Reilly, meanwhile, has called for clarity regarding restrictions and measures put in place to protect Bulgarian workers who had arrived as well as the local community. 

Keelings said it assists in finding accommodation for seasonal workers across a number of locations as well as providing bus transport to its farm at St. Margaret’s in County Dublin. 

The company added all 189 seasonal workers who arrived from Bulgaria had been medically screened by a doctor before travelling from Sofia and that each individual was temperature checked before arriving in Ireland. 

The 189 workers, the company said, were taken straight to their housing in Co Dublin, cannot work for 14 days and must restrict their movement, as per HSE guidelines. 

What’s happening elsewhere in Europe

In other parts of Europe, Eastern European workers are being allowed fly in to pick fruit and vegetables amid concerns that produce could be left to rot if not harvested, with many of the UK-based workers staying at home due to Covid-19 restrictions. 

In the UK, one of its largest food producers, G’s Fresh confirmed to BBC that it had chartered two flights carrying Eastern European farmworkers from Romania.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) in the UK, meanwhile, said that up to 70,000 fruit and vegetable pickers are needed.

It is calling for a modern-day “land army” of UK volunteers to tackle the harvest.

Last week, Germany gave the green light for flights to allow thousands of seasonal workers from Eastern Europe to travel in order to harvest crops.  

Ryanair’s statement

In a statement, Ryanair confirmed a charter flight for a private company had landed at Dublin Airport from Sofia on Monday.

“Ryanair complied with all regulations set out by EASA and WHO on these special flights,” a spokesperson said. 

Dublin Airport Authority, which manages Dublin Airport, said it has “fully complied” with the guidelines set out by Public Health Officials. 

“The Government has placed HSE staff at Dublin Airport and all arriving passengers – whether Irish residents or not – are being informed by those HSE staff that they need to restrict their movements for 14 days upon arrival,” a spokesperson said. 

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Under current restrictions, Gardaí have powers to limit non-essential travel beyond 2 kilometres. 

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, An Garda Síochána confirmed that a number of passengers at Dublin Airport’s Arrival Hall on Monday were escorted to their coaches by a guide, after queries relating to the specific flight from Sofia, Bulgaria which landed on Monday afternoon. 

“Gardaí had no interaction with the passengers in question,” a spokesperson said. 

Essential workers

The Irish Government’s ‘List Of Essential Providers‘ states ‘Farmers & Farm Workers’ are essential providers during Covid-19. 

Following reports that Keelings had chartered a flight to Dublin, Fianna Fáil TD Paul McAuliffe today queried how “essential” Keelings’ workers are given current circumstances.

“While the work they carry out may be deemed to be essential, I do not believe that it was essential during this crisis to move such a large number of people more than 2km and across the continent,” he said. 

In its statement this evening, Keelings said: “We will take care of these colleagues as we take care of all of our people, permanent or temporary. 

“They will be subject to further medical screening before they start work at Keelings.   We will continue to consult with the HSE and other appropriate agencies to ensure both our staff and the communities they live in remain safe.”

Travel has fallen dramatically

The Government, meanwhile, said the number of people travelling to Ireland has fallen by more than 95% since the start of Covid-19. 

“The Irish border, including airports, remains open to support the supply chain for essential cargo and essential workers, as well as the repatriation of our citizens,” it said in a statement.  

“Seasonal workers are critical to the agricultural sector in terms of harvesting, planting and tending functions, especially in the current season.

“The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has been working closely with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to ensure employers are aware of the supports for business to help them source labour from the domestic economy,” the Government said. 

“A national recruitment campaign will start shortly with the aim of recruiting a large number of temporary workers for the Horticulture sector from the live register within Ireland. This campaign will be timed for the Fruit harvest peaking in mid-May to Mid-June and the Vegetable harvest from mid-June.” 

- Updated by Gráinne Ní Aodha

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