The planned launch in June of a European Union green certificate for international travel for people immune or free from Covid-19 is a "sensible" measure to facilitate tourism, according to Trinity College biochemist Luke O'Neill.
Mr O’Neill also said that the State’s improving virus situation should allow the reopening of outdoor dining to be speeded up. He also believes the launch of travel certificates should bring about an end to mandatory hotel quarantine for certificate holders.
The Government says it supports the certificates, which will facilitate quarantine-free travel for people who are vaccinated, immune from past infection or who test negative. However, Ministers have suggested Ireland may not sign up to the system immediately, and may wait until later in the year to begin accepting the certificates.
“Tourism is an essential activity. It is essential for the economy. I don’t think the variants should stop vaccinated people from travelling. It is very sensible to bring back tourism. We just need to keep an eye on the virus variants,” said the scientist, who is professor of biochemistry at Trinity’s department of biochemistry and immunology.
Mr O’Neill said there were “unknowns” around new virus variants, which could potentially reduce the effectiveness of some vaccines. However, he suggested the number of variant infections could become “irrelevant” if it turned out that they do not cause serious disease as vaccines should still at least partly work against them.
“If a very nasty variant crops up in France or Germany, then we are in a little bit more trouble,” he said.
In a video interview with industry lobby group, the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation, to be released to its members on Thursday, Mr O'Neill said the end goal was to "live with Covid-19 just like we live with any other infectious disease".
He said he was “99 per cent sure” this could be achieved by 2022. “And then bringing back consumer confidence will be the next thing on people’s minds.”
On the issue of the reluctance so far of Irish public health officials to endorse the use of rapid antigen testing to facilitate more economic and social activity, Mr O’Neill said “there is one overarching question: were we too conservative?”
He suggested each household in the State should be supplied with 10 free antigen tests by the Government. In the UK such tests are to be used to facilitate mass public gatherings, such as potentially a token crowd at the FA Cup football final.
“[Irish public health officials] are looking for 99 per cent certainty [with antigen tests]. But you have to take risks if you are alive. Otherwise you would stay home every day.
“You take risks because the benefits are big. It would be a benefit to tourism if larger events were allowed happen. We can’t live in this grey zone forever.”