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Health Minister: 'If you do need to travel home for Christmas - follow traffic light rules'

The Taoiseach says Irish public health experts are “not converts” to antigen testing.

The health minister is urging people to take on a common sense approach to international travel.
The health minister is urging people to take on a common sense approach to international travel.
Image: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Updated Nov 18th 2020, 5:26 PM

HEALTH MINISTER STEPHEN Donnolly has said if people do need to travel home to see their family this Christmas they should follow the rules set out under the EU traffic light travel plan.

The issue of travel around Christmas has dominated the headlines in recent weeks.

Speaking to Newstalk’s Pat Kenny, the health minister said there are two different parts to the government advice around international travel and Christmas, which he believes the public understand.

“The first part of the message is we’re in the middle of the biggest pandemic in 100 years… so the public health advice is if you don’t have to travel… in the middle of a global pandemic, which is causing so much hurt and pain and cost for everybody, then don’t.”

“The second part of the message is, however, if you do need to travel, and that includes if you haven’t seen your family, and if you do need to come home and see your family at Christmas, then there is a clear traffic light system in place with protocols you need to follow,” said Donnelly.

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

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

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

Ireland signed up to the plan in October.

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.

Earlier in the Dáil, the Taoiseach said the government is currently preparing the plan to exit Level 5 restrictions, and that will include travel.

He said travel does pose risks, but said it is about “how we manage risks and peoples’ behaviours”.

The issue of rapid testing, and its use in terms of travel, was also raised in the Dail today with the Taoiseach.

Sinn Fein Mary Lou McDonald highlighted how the the Irish Airlines Pilots Association has called for rapid testing to be used for those arriving and departing at Irish airports, stating that it seems to be a “matter of common sense”. 

She asked why there hasn’t been a comprehensive comparison of the different tests and how they can be used in each setting.

McDonald accused the Taoiseach of having a “hands off” approach when it comes to the issue of Christmas travel, stating that testing at airports and ports is “obviously necessary and a priority matter”.

Her comments come after there were calls today for the government to align its testing regime with today’s European Commission recommendation on the use of rapid antigen testing in certain settings.

The recommendation provides guidance on how to select rapid antigen testing systems, when they are appropriate and who should perform them, said the Fianna Fail MEP  Billy Kelleher.

The Commission has recommended that in order to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 in healthcare and social-care settings, rapid antigen tests – which can deliver results in about an hour – should be considered at admission to healthcare facilities, as well as for triage of symptomatic patients or residents.

In high prevalence situations or where PCR testing capacity is limited, rapid antigen tests use should be considered for recurring testing (every 2-3 days) of staff of health-care, home and social care, other long-term care facilities, closed settings, such as prisons, detention centres, and other reception infrastructures for asylum seekers
and migrants, it states.

Rapid anitgen testing should also be used on relevant frontline workers in sectors such a meat processing, plants, slaughterhouses, and other similar settings.

Travel

Today’s recommendation also states the possibility to use rapid antigen tests for passengers travelling abroad might be further considered.

Taking into account the latest scientific and technological developments in light of the
epidemiological situation, the Commission states that the ECDC and the
European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) are jointly developing a protocol for
safer air travel, including the establishment of a common testing approach at airports.

Kelleher said scientific advances in the area of testing have changed our understanding of the virus, and these advances should therefore inform how we view different testing and diagnostic procedures.

While he said the PCR test should be used where possible, due to the time taken to get a result using PCR testing, there may be benefit in looking for a testing system that delivers quicker results especially in emergency or in point-of-care scenarios such as the health sector or in nursing homes.

“A critical aspect of dealing with testing, and the wider Covid 19 response, is coordination at European Union level. Cross-border movement will eventually start to return to normal. We should agree to mutually recognise test results where certain scientific and diagnostic standards are met,” said Kelleher.

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The Taoiseach told the Dáil that the public health authorities “are not are not convinced about the efficacy of rapid testing, or antigen testing”.

He said it was “no mystery” as that has been the position of Irish public health experts ”since the get go” of the pandemic.

Co-ordinated approach across Europe

He said the issue of a co-ordinated approach to testing will be discussed at a European leader Council meeting tomorrow, but said there was “no definitive European wide approach to antigen testing or rapid testing” 

He confirmed that the The National Virus Reference Laboratory (NVRL) is currently carrying out a validation process on LAMP testing, while the National Public Health Emergency Team, (NPHET) is validating community antigen testing. 

The LAMP test uses a throat and nose swab and differs from a PCR test, which is used by the HSE to detect the presence of Covid-19 at its test centres around the country. The LAMP test can be processed quickly without being sent to a laboratory.

Currently, the only validated test recognised in Ireland is the PCR test. After someone is swabbed, the PCR test has to be sent to a lab for analysis. 

“But the feedback or sense I’m getting from public health advice is they are not converts to antigen testing,” he said. 

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