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'We can't ban travel': Health Minister rules out screening for Covid-19 at Irish airports

In recent days, an increased number of cases of Covid-19 have been identified on mainland Europe.

Health Minister Simon Harris
Health Minister Simon Harris
Image: Sam Boal

THE DEPARTMENT OF Health’s Chief Medical Officer and the Minister for Health have said screening at airports is not necessary and is not effective in identifying coronavirus symptoms. 

In recent days, an increased number of cases of Covid-19 have been identified on mainland Europe.

Italy, which has reported 11 deaths and more than 300 cases — has locked down 11 towns. Yesterday, it emerged that some schools are now taking precautions after students returned from ski trips in Italy. 

Iran, meanwhile, has also emerged as a Covid-19 hotspot, with three more people dying from the disease on Monday. 

Despite the numbers of fresh cases and deaths declining at the disease epicentre in China, the virus has spread rapidly internationally prompting travel concerns and questions around whether airports should provide medical assessments for passengers arriving from Covid-19-affected regions. 

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Dr Tony Holohan, the Department of Health’s Chief Medical Officer, said screening at airports “has no value” and is not recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). 

Holohan said there may be very limited circumstances in which screening would be considered “where there’s a very high risk in relation to a specific flight”. 

In response to the current situation he said “it is of absolutely no value and a waste of resources”.

Several European countries have taken extra precautions following the Covid-19 spread in Italy this week. 

Austria, which borders Italy, has said people who are travelling from affected areas in Italy will be stopped from crossing its border.

Croatia said people returning from Italy will be questioned by border police and sanitary inspectors. 

Source: World Health Organization(WHO)/YouTube.Com

Speaking on Today FM’s Dermot & Dave this morning, Health Minister Simon Harris said his Department and the HSE will only put in place World Health Organisation-recommended measures and measures recommended by Public Health doctors in Ireland. 

“Screening doesn’t work,” said Harris.

“One of the reasons it doesn’t work is you can have this condition for up to 14 days and not actually show symptoms.”

As it stands, it not yet known how contagious Covid-19 is. Unlike the flu, there is no vaccine for the new coronavirus either, making it more difficult for vulnerable people to protect themselves. 

Harris added that Ireland should have “proportionate responses”, adding “we can’t ban travel”.

Although it would send “a very poor message” in terms of trying to contain Covid-19 if Ireland actively encouraged people to travel here, Harris said, “we can’t ban travel”. 

“Let’s pretend we decided in Ireland [that] we weren’t going to accept flights from Italy. That wouldn’t work because Italian people could be flying to France and France on to Ireland,” said Harris.

“We live in the European Union. There is free movement. That’s a proportionate and responsible thing to do,” he said. 

A spokesperson for Dublin Airport Authority (DAA), meanwhile, told TheJournal.ie that it continues to follow advice issued by the HSE’s Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) which in turn follows advice from the World Health Organisation. 

“The HPSC has said that given there are no currently no direct flights to Dublin Airport from China or Hong Kong, there is no requirement for entry screening at Dublin Airport,” they added. 

“Separately, there are formal protocols in place in the event of a passenger presenting with acute respiratory infection on an inbound aircraft, and these will be adhered to,” they said. 

The HSPC will continue to closely monitor the situation and will keep us informed immediately should there be any change in the guidelines.

This morning, Dr Holohan told people to “self-isolate” if they return from a region affected by coronavirus and are displaying symptoms. 

“If you have come back from any of those regions in the last 14 days and experience flu-like symptoms such as a cough or shortness of breath, breathing difficulties or a fever – you should stay at home.”

“Make contact with your GP and be guided by your GP from there,” Holohan said.

Holohan said that the HSE will be publishing guidelines on self-isolation on its website.  

These guidelines, he said, would provide “very detailed instructions” about what to do in the event of needing to self-isolate. 

Holohan also set out what individuals should do if a family member is in self-isolation in the same home. 

“Individuals living in that home may well be close-contact and contact may already have taken place within the home,” he said. In the case of a child, “a parent may already have been in close contact so restricting contact between a parent and a case at that point might have limited value in protecting the parent”. 

In a bid to reduce pressure on hospitals, Holohan said that the government had decided that an individual who has been tested for coronavirus in an Irish hospital can be asked to “go home and self-isolate”. 

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