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Sam Boal
international travel

Top Irish health official raised 'serious concerns' about travel advice issued by European agency

The Department wrote to the European Centre for Disease Control & Prevention one day before the UK revealed a new variant of Covid-19.

THE DEPARTMENT OF Health expressed “serious concerns” about international travel advice issued by The European Centre for Disease Control & Prevention in the run-up to Christmas, claiming it was inconsistent and lacking in evidence. 

A letter to the ECDC on 9 December from Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Colette Bonner followed Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan’s public criticism of ECDC advice which said air travel should not be considered high-risk for spreading Covid-19. 

The advice, published in early December, said imported cases of Covid-19 “account for a very small proportion of all detected cases and are unlikely to significantly increase rate of transmission.”

In response, Dr Holohan said he believed Public Health advice should be that people avoid non-essential travel at Christmas. 

Two days later, Dr Bonner outlined “serious concerns” expressed by Public Health experts in Ireland over recent ECDC publications on international travel in a letter to the European agency. 

ECDC guidance, she said, “contain(s) inconsistencies in messaging that are not in accordance with evidence” and the experience of EU States. 

Dr Bonner outlined concerns about the ECDC’s Covid-19 Aviation Health Safety Protocol, published on 1 July in conjunction with European Union Aviation Safety Agency.

This document, Dr Bonner said, did not address the risk of importation of Covid-19 into European countries through travel.

Furthermore, an addendum to these guidelines, published on 2 December and criticised publicly by Dr Holohan, “appears to ignore the significance of international travel as a potential amplifier of infection, especially in those countries that have a achieved a low level” of Covid-19 infection, she said. 

Dr Bonner’s letter was sent one day before UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed a new strain of Covid-19 was spreading rapidly throughout parts of England. 

At the time, Ireland had one of the lowest Covid-19 rates in Europe as many countries on the continent implemented strict measures to curb the spread of the virus. Ireland had just exited Level 5 as the Government eased restrictions in the lead-up to Christmas. 

Following Hancock’s announcement, more cases of this new strain were identified and, in late December, several countries including Ireland implemented travel restrictions on movement from the UK. 

In a letter to Health Minister Stephen Donnelly this week, Dr Holohan said that in the week to 3 January a total of 47 out 189 positive case samples (24.9%) were that of the UK variant.

NPHET had previously expressed serious concerns around people travelling home to Ireland from abroad for Christmas. 

In her letter, Dr Bonner also criticised the ECDC’s study of transmission risks associated with Christmas which she said “underplays the significance of international travel as a potential amplifier” for transmission “particularly in relation to leisure travel over the coming festive season”.  

According to ECDC guidance: “Member States should always admit their own nationals and EU citizens and their family members resident in their territory, and should facilitate swift transit through their territories.”

The Deputy Chief Medical Officer in her letter, however, said EU States should be allowed provide advice to their own citizens based on a country’s epidemiological situation.

Speaking at last night’s NPHET briefing, Dr Holohan said importation of the virus in recent weeks from international travel has been minimal but that the UK variant was likely first brought into Ireland in the first week of November. 

“We have found that relatively high proportion of those with this virus. So I think the combination of engagements with each other, that led to the surge in general terms, together with importation and travel around the Christmas period has brought us to a situation where…we think now we’re experiencing something in the region of of 25% [of the UK variant].”

Said Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn of the concerns raised by Dr Bonner: “There’s ongoing engagement with the ECDC and I’m sure they’re they’re considering it in light of all that’s happened across Europe in recent weeks.”

The Government this week said the current ban on travel from the UK and South Africa will end on Saturday, at which point passengers arriving from these two countries will be required to display a ‘not detected’ PCR test result that they acquired within 72 hours of travelling. 

This will be reviewed on 31 January. 

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