Q&A: What are the latest travel rules, and what do I need to get back into Ireland for Christmas?

Conor Pope on travelling to and from Ireland as the Omicron Covid-19 threat mounts

Will we be able to travel this Christmas?

It looks that way, although it will not be a normal Christmas. DAA, which runs Dublin Airport, expects to see 850,000 travellers over the 12 or so days of Christmas. That's a huge increase on the 235,000 people who travelled last year, when air traffic was hit hard by Covid, but down 42 per cent on 2019, when 1.5 million came and went. Between tomorrow and Tuesday, January 4th, it says, 45,000 people will use the airport each day, with the busiest two 24-hour periods likely to be on Sunday, December 19th, and Thursday, December 23rd.

Where are they coming from?

All over the world, with an influx expected from the United States – many people based there were unable to travel this time last year so will be making up for going the guts of two years without seeing family and friends at home. Restrictions are still in place in New Zealand and Australia, where a lot of Irish people and people with links to Ireland are based. But there'll be lots of travelling to and from Britain, as well as from across the EU.

Is all that coming and going wise? We're still in the pandemic, and the Omicron variant of Covid-19 is on the rise.

Coronavirus is still a cause of grave concern, and rules are in place to try to minimise the risks associated with international travel. But, as Tony Holohan, the chief medical officer, points out, about 15 per cent of Covid detected in Ireland in recent days are already the Omicron variant. If the variant is spreading rapidly through community transmission here, there is probably little point in worrying overly about importing cases.

What is Nphet saying about international travel?

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It was due to brief the Government on Thursday, when it may suggest further travel restrictions. The Cabinet will then consider these. Even though Tánaiste Leo Varadkar says it will decide as quickly as possible how to respond, things are very much up in the air – which is what you won't be if tighter restrictions are rolled out, of course. Leo Varadkar said yesterday that he expected Nphet to recommend more restrictions on international travel, as well as on social mixing and close contacts.

What rules are in place right now?

The key requirement for anybody who wants to enter Ireland is to be able to prove that they are fully vaccinated against Covid-19, or to prove that they have recovered from it, or to have a negative result from a PCR test taken in the previous 72 hours. They must also have completed a passenger locator form online before touching down in Ireland. The Government sets out these requirements here.

Does the negative result have to be from a PCR test? What about antigen tests?

If you are not vaccinated you must provide that negative PCR result. You must also provide a negative PCR result if you are travelling from any "scheduled state" – currently seven African countries – regardless of your vaccination status.

But if you are vaccinated or have recovered from Covid you can provide either a negative result from a PCR test taken in the 72 hours before you arrive or the negative result of an antigen test administered by a professional – so not the kind you buy from a shop – in the 48 hours before you arrive in Ireland.

The clock starts ticking the moment you have the test and stops the moment you arrive, not the moment you are scheduled to arrive or the moment you are scheduled to leave your country of departure. So if your flight is due to arrive in Dublin at 2pm this Christmas Eve, you must not have a PCR test before 2pm this Tuesday or an antigen test before 2pm this Wednesday. That doesn’t leave much leeway for flight delays, changes or cancellations.

There is an exception to these testing rules for people who have recovered from Covid but continue to get positive results from PCR tests, as the Government explains here.

Okay. I'm fully vaccinated. What would happen if I missed the 72-hour window for my PCR test because my flight back to Ireland was delayed by two hours, say?

You'd most likely be feeling pretty stressed, for a start, but, from what we understand, border officials would probably allow you into the country.

Okay. And what if my PCR test is positive?

That is one of the worst-case scenarios, for sure. You will have to self-isolate wherever you happen to be and wait for an all-clear before getting another flight. That could mean waiting as long as two weeks.

Two weeks? That would be a nightmare.

It would, but the test and subsequent self-isolation would mean you were not on a plane unknowingly infecting those around you.

What happens if I arrive without a negative test?

In many instances you will not be allowed to board your flight. Even if you make it as far as your plane, your documentation will be checked at the Irish border and you could face a sanction. You would also have to quarantine and have a PCR test within 36 hours – or remain in home quarantine for 10 days.

And all PCR tests are the same, right?

No. A reader called Fiona found this out to her cost – and considerable stress this week when travelling from the US.

“Myself and a party of friends had a bad experience on December 5th when we tried to check-in in Chicago O’Hare Airport as our PCR test was refused by the Aer Lingus staff as it was not an “RT-PCR test”. We were not alone, as around 30 people were also refused check-in and hence mayhem ensued as we all had to go and get tested for a rapid antigen. I am passionate about getting this message out there to make sure anyone coming home does not experience what we did, as to be honest, this was news to us  - never knew there were 2 types of PCR tests.”

So, whatever you do, make sure you have an RT PCR test.

What does RT stand for?

Reverse Transcription, as it happens.

If I can't travel because I have Covid will I be able to get my airfare back?

Almost certainly not. Don't expect to be able to change your flight either. If the plane takes off without you, you can pretty much say goodbye to your money.

Wouldn't my travel insurance cover me?

Do you have travel insurance? Lots of people only buy it for foreign holidays rather than for shorter trips or visits home for Christmas. This is not the time to think like that: buy travel insurance for every journey, and make sure it has Covid cover. Bear in mind that you can't buy it after the fact – no policy will cover you if you buy only after testing positive.

What if I have planned a short trip overseas over before or after Christmas?

The same rules apply when you are coming home – you'll need a negative test result, your vaccine cert and your passenger locator form. (You'll also have to follow the rules of the country you're travelling to.)

Can I have my test in Ireland if I'm going overseas for the weekend?

You can, but keep a close eye on that test window. We would recommend timing the test so you get the results before you leave Ireland – which doesn't give you a whole lot of time to play with.

Let’s say you plan to spend two days in London, leaving Ireland at 10am on December 21st and coming home at 2pm on December 23rd. If you have to go – is it such a trip wise? – you should probably book a PCR test for 4pm on December 20th. All going well, you should have your negative result back before you leave the next morning and will still be just inside 72-hour testing window when you arrive back in Ireland.

Doing it this way also means that, if you get a positive result before your flight abroad and can’t travel, you’ll at least still be at home and won’t end up stuck in a place you don’t necessarily want to be for most of the festive season.

It seems bad in Britain

It really does, and countries are responding to the surge in cases there in various ways. Here, people arriving from Britain are being asked to take antigen tests on five consecutive days their arrival in Ireland.  France is taking a much harder line and has asked people planning to visit the UK to “postpone their travel”. As of this weekend, British tourists will be banned from travelling to France and will not be allowed to go to and from Britain without “compelling reasons”. Work or tourism are not considered compelling.

Could that happen here?

It could but it would certainly upend a huge number of people's plans and is something the Government would most likely consider only as a last resort.