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Confrontation with NPHET foreseen as government presses ahead with EU travel plan

Government sources have said Ireland has already agreed to be part of the new EU programme that will open up travel.

The Taoiseach says 8 November is still the target for government to get the traffic light travel system operational in Ireland.
The Taoiseach says 8 November is still the target for government to get the traffic light travel system operational in Ireland.
Image: RollingNews.ie

THE GOVERNMENT AND the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) are set to clash next week on international travel advice and the new European traffic light system.

Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan will discuss air travel advice and Covid-19 testing at airports before the Oireachtas Transport Committee on Tuesday.

HIQA’s recently published report into rapid testing will form a key part of the committee’s discussions with Holohan next week. 

On Thursday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin confirmed to TheJournal.ie that it is still the government’s intention to have the traffic light system operational in Ireland on Sunday 8 November.

While he said it is “far too early to say what type of Christmas” the country will have, he said the Government would give travel advice for Christmas at the end of November.

“If we get the numbers really down then we can look to manage the next couple of months. The only message now is we want Level 5 to work,” he said. 

Ireland has agreed to align with EU plan

The Taoiseach said the Cabinet has agreed to align Ireland with the EU traffic light system.

Under the plan, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control will publish a weekly map of the EU using a three-stage colour system to indicate the level of risk in each area.

Levels will be determined by a variety of epidemiological factors including the 14-day incidence per 100,000 population and the level of positive tests.

Ministers, including Transport Minister Eamon Ryan, have said the new traffic light system should allow for relatives and friends to return home to Ireland for Christmas this year.

However, when asked this week about international travel, Holohan told TheJournal.ie that it is NPHET’s position that the risks associated with it are “very, very high”.

While he said he was aware of the decision made in relation to signing up to the EU traffic light system, he said NPHET would be concerned about anything that is going to “weaken” the defenses in place in Ireland.

While the current requirement for a person to restrict their movements for 14 days following arrival from a ‘red’ region remains until further notice, the Government is planning that as soon as it is practicable, this requirement can be waived following a negative result from an approved Covid-19 test taken five days after arrival.

8 November target

If the traffic light system is up and running by midnight on 8 November, the requirement for those arriving from orange locations to restrict their movements can be waived, if they have a negative test result up to three days before arrival.

This test must be conducted by an authorised entity recognised within that member state. The Taoiseach said this week that work is underway to validate rapid-testing technologies for use in Ireland. 

With the plan set to come into effect this day next week, there are concerns at government level that NPHET might still begin to ratchet up its reservations about international travel in the run up to Christmas. 

A government source pointed out that the deal ‘is done’.

In relation to disagreements that may arise, it was highlighted that NPHET has recommended that no one leave their country or beyond 5km of their home, so it is inevitable the public experts will not advocate for the new system.

Clash with NPHET

Another source said they foresee a confrontation over travel issues. This isn’t the first time the government and NPHET has differed on the issue of travel. Earlier in the pandemic, Holohan recommended that all arrivals into the country be quarantined for 14 days in separate isolation facilities once off the plane – something the government ruled out from the beginning.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said mandatory quarantine was “not workable” in Ireland. He said the country did not have a sufficient number of hotels or security staff to make quarantine legally mandatory.

The issue of mandatory quarantine was a flashpoint around the last Cabinet table, with a number of ministers saying it would be a “step too far” for Ireland to go down that route.

The Irish Council of Civil Liberties also raised serious concerns about the rollout of legislation which it was concerned could impede on people’s human rights

It has been acknowledged by ministers that throughout the pandemic, Ireland has had one of the strictest approaches to international travel. 

One government source said it is “really important” that people can return home to visit their loved ones this Christmas, especially if the country is on the far side of a second wave. They added that it would be wrong to stop this.

Some in government circles believe that NPHET could raise concerns about the categories of travellers that are exempt from the requirement to undergo quarantine measures under the new EU travel plan, saying that the new regime might be too “liberal” for some. 

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It is also being argued in government that despite travel restrictions in the Republic, they are ‘useless’ if Northern Ireland and the UK are open to the world. 

EU pressure to harmonise policy 

While travel was an issue of contention early on in the pandemic, there is more pressure on the Taoiseach now to align with his EU counterparts. This week, the Taoiseach took part in a virtual call with other EU leaders on the issue of travel and testing. 

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said after the call that leaders agreed that a quick validation at EU level of the new tests must be achieved, saying that  this refers mainly to the rapid antigen tests that are currently being developed.

“We have the PCR testing and we have the new rapid antigen tests. We will work on the validation on EU level, because this will then enable us to describe the optimal setting for the different forms of tests and it will enable us for a mutual recognition of test results across the European Union.”

She also said an EU-wide passenger locator form would be rolled out this month. 

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