Government delays in introducing the European Union digital pass will leave the Republic trailing as the rest of the bloc reopens this summer, travel industry figures warned on Wednesday.
Europe has agreed to launch a digital pass, showing proof of vaccination, immunity or negative tests, next month, to revive travel and tourism across the union as the pandemic recedes.
Paul Hackett, Irish Travel Agents' Association board member, and Pat Dawson, the organisation's chief executive, told politicians that the Republic needed to "implement the EU digital green certificate in full and without delay".
Addressing the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport, Mr Hackett pointed out that an EU directive gave the pass legal status. "It's not an option for Ireland to veto this or opt out," he said.
The Republic has six weeks from mid-June to implement the plan, he added. Mr Hackett and Mr Dawson warned that the time to act was now, or else the State risked being left behind the rest of Europe and airlines would shift aircraft elsewhere.
However, Mr Dawson said that it was not clear which Government department was meant to take charge of implementation. “There is no one taking ownership of this, everyone is involved but nobody is involved.”
Mr Hackett explained that the issue was now resting with the Department of Health, while the Taoiseach's department had oversight, and a Minister of State was responsible for the digital element.
He argued that the Government would need to ensure it had the technical ability to provide the pass within six weeks of mid-June. “We need to be fast and efficient and really robust,” he said.
The EU's proposals will also allow open international travel. The commission plans to allow in passengers inoculated with vaccines approved by its regulators, including those from the United States.
Mr Hackett told the committee that the Government had passed 35 different ministerial orders controlling international travel since the start of the year. “We need to plan to unwind all of them,” he said.
Meanwhile, the committee plans to pressure the Department of Transport to begin trialling rapid Covid tests on flights to aid the reopening of air travel.
The department has failed to contact experts who last month recommended that the State introduce rapid virus tests to aid in reopening the economy, according to the group's head, Prof Mark Ferguson.
Speaking to the committee, Prof Ferguson – the director general of Science Foundation Ireland – agreed that it would be a "very good idea" to begin trialling rapid tests on flights, initially between the Republic and UK.
Committee chairman Kieran O’Donnell TD pledged that it would recommend immediately that the Department of Transport engage with Prof Ferguson and begin trialling rapid tests on flights.
Deputy O'Donnell criticised the department for failing to contact the Government-appointed Covid-19 Rapid Testing Group, which Prof Ferguson heads, more than a month after it published its report.
The professor confirmed that several Government departments had engaged with the group and had begun rapid testing pilot programmes, but not “transport and aviation”, he added.
Prof Ferguson suggested that rapid tests could allow the Government to ditch controversial hotel quarantines and other virus curbs.