Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan faces growing political pressure to urge public health officials to begin a pilot programme of antigen testing for air travel.
Government failure to adopt rapid antigen Covid-19 tests for air travel passengers is one of several restrictions blamed for a crisis that has cost the industry more than 4,000 jobs and wiped more than 90 per cent off passenger numbers.
The Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications has written to the Minister asking him to write to chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan requesting the "urgent commencement" of an antigen testing pilot programme for aviation.
Dr Holohan, who is chairman of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), told the committee this week that there was no evidence to validate the use of rapid antigen testing for air travel.
Committee chairman, Kieran O’Donnell TD, noted that Dr Holohan supported its proposal to begin a pilot programme of antigen testing for air travel.
“However, he informed us that, to date, he has received no such a request from any Government department or Minister,” he added.
“The committee has requested Minister Ryan to confirm that the matter is being expedited, providing a specific commencement date for the rapid antigen testing pilot programme for aviation,” Mr O’Donnell said.
This week Dr Holohan told the committee that it should be possible to resume international travel later this summer once vaccination progressed in Europe and the Republic.
Fine Gael Senator Regina Doherty joined calls to use rapid antigen tests as an aid to restarting international travel and reopening society following 15 months of restrictions.
“We’ve a real risk that 143,000 who are reliant on aviation, hospitality tourism and travel are going to lose their jobs in their tens of thousands this year, unless we be ambitious.”
“I don’t know genuinely why we’re not employing antigen testing at a far greater and far faster rate than we have,” said Ms Doherty at the Fine Gael Ardfheis.
She warned that with Irish aviation on its knees, it was “beyond time” to begin a pilot programme.
The committee has also made the call directly to Dr Holohan, Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, several Ministers and senior civil servants.
Experts argue that cheap, quick antigen tests are ideal for air travel and big events, as they can identify potentially infectious people before they board a plane or enter a venue.
Irish restrictions require many incoming passengers to show negative results from slower, more expensive PCR screening on arrival. Some must then get a second PCR test, which is given free, five days after landing in the Republic.
On Nphet’s advice, the Government only accepts PCR results from travellers arriving here.
Antigen tests will be used in the Netherlands next month when the Dutch government intends reopening sports stadia to full attendance.