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MEPs ask Taoiseach to allow Covid testing as replacement for quarantine on return to Ireland

Billy Kelleher, Seán Kelly, and Ciarán Cuffe have written to Taoiseach Micheál Martin to ask for MEPs to be treated as essential workers for travel purposes.

Image: Monasse Thierry/ANDBZ/ABACA

IRISH MEMBERS OF the European Parliament have written to the Taoiseach to ask for an exemption from the 14-day quarantine if they receive a negative Covid-19 test result in order to allow them to do their jobs “fully”, following on from the golfgate controversy.

As it stands, Ireland’s public health advice says that any travellers arriving in Ireland from a non-Green List country must restrict their movements for 14 days. 

Ireland classifies MEPs as essential workers for domestic travel purposes, along with TDs, senators and councillors.

They are exempt from certain Covid-19 restrictions (which are no longer in effect) – but this exemption does not apply to foreign travel, meaning they must adhere to the same quarantine rules as citizens who travel abroad for non-essential reasons.

This means that although MEPs are deemed as essential workers in both Belgium and Ireland, when travelling from Belgium (a non-Green List country) to Ireland, Ireland does not deem MEPs to be essential workers. The same applies to government ministers.

MEPs Billy Kelleher (Fianna Fáil), Seán Kelly (Fine Gael), and Ciarán Cuffe (Green Party) have written a joint-letter to the Taoiseach Micheál Martin to ask for MEPs to be made exempt from the 14-day quarantine if they receive a negative Covid-19 test result before and after travel.

This request for flexibility comes as the European Parliament reconvenes this week after the summer break.

“To fully carry out our duties, we need to attend in person,” the letter states. “MEPs cannot speak at plenary sessions of Parliament unless they are in physical attendance.”

Under the current guidelines, each of us must quarantine for two weeks upon our return to Ireland. This significantly restricts our activities when we are home.

MEPs travel back to Ireland in order to visit their families, to engage with constituents, and when there is a break in the Parliament schedule that means they need not attend.

The three MEPs – heads of delegation for their respective parties – pointed out that there are testing facilities available on arrival to or departure from the EU’s parliament.

“We believe pre-and post-travel Covid-19 testing would reduce the potential risk of infection and transmission of the virus and allow Irish MEPs to carry out their jobs fully,” the three MEPs said, emphasising that votes and debates are due to be held in relation to the EU Recovery Plan, the European Green Deal, the Just Transition Fund and Brexit.

“We understand that guideline[s] for essential workers are under consideration, and hope that the needs of those in similar circumstance[s] can be taken into consideration, whether it be long-distance Heavy Goods Vehicle drivers or Government ministers.”

The letter was also sent to the Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan.

The European Parliament is to sit weekly in either Brussels or Strasbourg in France until the Christmas break.

The European Parliament is based in Strasbourg, France; MEPs’ offices are based in Brussels, where plenary sessions of the European Parliament are also held.

The European Parliament’s rules

Ireland’s 14-day quarantine requirement for travellers was scrutinised last week after former EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan said he didn’t quarantine for the required 14-day period after receiving a negative Covid-19 test result in an Irish hospital.

A similar issue arose in July, when Fianna Fáil MEP Billy Kelleher apologised after not restricting his movements upon his return to Ireland, after having availed of Covid-19 testing facilities before leaving Brussels.

The HSE advice states that a negative Covid-19 test result does not negate the need to quarantine for 14 days after travel from a non-Green List country. 

If someone had Covid-19 symptoms, but received a negative test result, then the advice is that they no longer have to restrict their movements.

Restricting your movements means avoiding contact with other people as much as possible; ie, working from home and not having visitors to the house. It’s also advised that family or friends drop groceries off, and although exercise is allowed, a two-metre distance from others must be maintained.

Speaking on an episode of RTÉ’s Prime Time last week following Hogan’s resignation, Independents 4 Change MEP Clare Daly said that she was “a bit surprised at the big fuss” about Phil Hogan’s assertion that when he had a negative Covid-19 test result, he thought he didn’t have to quarantine.

“Because to be perfectly honest, that’s the impression given here to us to allow us to engage in our work in the Parliament. I’m not in any way understating this issue, but that’s the basis we’re operating on in terms of our travel.

…Around April or May, the European Parliament brought in a system whereby MEPs could be tested in order to avoid quarantine.
It means MEPs could come to work, go home for the weekend, not have to quarantine, come back and do the test again.

Daly said that she had been in Brussels for most of the Covid-19 pandemic, but returned to Ireland during the summer: “I came from Italy so I didn’t have to quarantine.”

“I was here all the time but we saw an increase in MEPs coming back [after the testing system for MEPs was brought in]. The Irish MEPs started to to-and-fro from about May.”

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MEP for Ireland South Seán Kelly told C103′s Cork Today Show said that “one of the problems here is that it varies from country to country”.

There is no blanket rule that says MEPs are exempt… And I think that’s where the confusion has arisen. And we need clear guidance.

A spokesperson for the European Parliament said that MEPs are subject to the rules and regulations set out by local and regional governments.

In Belgium, exemptions exist for a number of categories such as for essential work or for a compelling reason, including diplomats, journalists for their work, and students who travel abroad on a daily basis.

This means that when MEPs carry out essential activities directly linked to their roles, and not non-essential activities, they are excluded from temporary travel restrictions and quarantine requirements in Belgium.

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