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Holohan raises concern about Christmas travel, says NPHET engaging with government on traffic light system

The situation at the moment is international travel of a non-essential nature is not safe, said Holohan.

CMO Tony Holohan says NPHET will give advice on Christmas travel closer to the time.
CMO Tony Holohan says NPHET will give advice on Christmas travel closer to the time.
Image: Oireachtas.ie

Updated Nov 3rd 2020, 2:00 PM

CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER Tony Holohan has said the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) is engaging in a process with government on how to enable the traffic light travel system by 8 November.

Despite repeated questioning by members of the Oireachtas Transport Committee, Holohan could not give specific details about what NPHET will advise in terms of people returning home this Christmas. 

The CMO says it’s too early to say what the situation will be regarding travelling home to Ireland at Christmas as it depends on “a whole lot of factors that are simply unknowable at this time”.

He said he was being asked to look forward a period of six weeks, adding “it is simply not possible” and stating that it is a “hypothetical situation”.

Holohan said he understands the sensitivity issues surrounding travel around Christmas time, with people wishing to come back to see each other who have perhaps not seen each other in many months. He said he also understood the implications it has for airlines. 

NPHET’s role is to simply advise on what the risks are “and how best ameliorate and address those risks”. 

The CMO said he is aware that the government has signed up to the new EU traffic light system around travel which is due to operate in Ireland from 8 November. 

He said NPHET is “working through the process as to how we are going to adopt the arrangement”.

Government is pushing to have a rapid testing regime up and running to ensure that friends and families can travel to visit their loved ones this Christmas.

Transport Minister Eamon Ryan has stated that the aim is to have airport testing up and running in time for Christmas, but added “it is not just for Christmas, we have to think into next year, we are an island”.

He said it is hoped that travel may be possible at Christmas time and that a testing regime will help to facilitate that.

Junior Minister for Transport Transport Hildegarde Naughton has also said that the new traffic light system is important “because many of our friends and families may be returning home for Christmas and we are very conscious of the timing”.

However, speaking in committee today, Holohan stated that NPHET is not anticipating recommending antigen testing for air travel “at this point of time”.

When asked about whether government will have to defer from NPHET advice on international travel and testing, a senior government source said Ireland has already signed up to the EU system, which involves a testing regime, so that’s it.

“International travel is not safe and movement of people around areas with high incidence of this disease, particularly in Europe and North America, is not safe,” Holohan told the committee today.

Ireland is “a small, open economy, with very close cultural, legal, business, economic relationships with the whole of the EU. It’s not New Zealand. It’s not going to be possible for us to keep the disease out”, said Holohan. 

However, he said NPHET advice will be an assessment made at a point in time closer to Christmas.

He warned that it might be the case that the risk of travel from red countries could be much greater coming up to Christmas than it is at the moment, pointing out that while Ireland’s rate has improved, other EU countries are seeing a deterioration.

Around Christmas time, Holohan envisages that the majority of EU countries will be catagorised as red.

“The vast majority of countries are red and getting redder.

“That’s the current situation. That’s the reason we’re concerned about international travel at this point in time.

“We’ve been experiencing a level of improvement very few other countries have been able to report and we need to hold on to that,” he said.

“Once we bring the disease back under control in Ireland, it will be necessary to manage very carefully the risks of importation,” Holohan said in his opening statement.

Holohan said NPHET is not ruling anything in or out, but when it comes to testing the nature of the test and the confidence the government can have in a test from another jurisdiction would have to be factored in.

He told the committee today that if Ireland introduces testing at airports passengers should take a Covid-19 test five days after arrival. 

If testing of incoming passengers is introduced here, the “most efficient” method to manage viral importation is to have a 5-7 day period of restricted movement with a symptom check and Covid-19 test on Day 5 after arrival. 

“This approach can still miss up to 15% of the imported cases. I understand that Finland and Germany are among the countries that have signalled intentions to adopt this measure as part of their travel policies,” Holohan said.

Under the EU 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.

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.

From midnight on 8 November – the date the new traffic light travel scheme comes into effect in Ireland – the government is planning that the requirement for those arriving from orange locations to restrict their movements is due to 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, according to junior minister Naughten.

Labour’s Duncan Smith raised concerns with Holohan about testing, stating today airports should be allowed to at least get infrastructure in place now for testing, stating that if not there could be “restriction fatigue” where people will just start booking flights. 

In terms of testing, Director of the UCD National Virus Reference Laboratory Cillian DeGascun said PCR testing remains the gold standard. He said there may be a role for antigen testing, but antigen tests have a sensitivity of 80%, meaning one in five cases will be missed.

Rapid testing, such as the LAMP test, is being used by other airports around the world to ensure safety while travelling. 

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. The new LAMP test does not, and can deliver results in an hour or so. This would be used for anyone wishing to leave the country.

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If the LAMP test is validated it will be approved by the Department of Health and can be incorporated that into Ireland’s testing regimes

DeGascun could not give the committee a date of when alternative tests to the PCR test would be validated but said a review is currently underway.

The chief medical officer said that testing does not sit on its own, and if introduced needs to be one part of a while suite of measures.

When pressed on the matter of whether having testing at airports is better than no testing, Holohan said “of course” but said it is “all down to how testing is used”. 

He raised concerns about using single point testing for travel, as well as “depending on the good will” of people to self isolate and quarantine. 

NPHET previously advocated for all arrivals into the country to be quarantined for 14 days in separate facilities once off the plane – something the government ruled out from the beginning.

There have been are some concerns recently at government level that despite the November date being set for the EU traffic light system, that NPHET may begin to ratchet up their reservations about international travel in the run up to Christmas. 

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 it.

Holohan told the commmitee today that if NPHET thinks travel into the country “is simply unsafe and shouldn’t happen then we would make that advice”.

However, he added that it is NPHET’s role to advice, and government’s role to make the final decision on how international travel should operate into the future.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin, meanwhile, confirmed last week that it is still the government’s intention to have the traffic light system operational in Ireland on Sunday 8 November.

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