Half of travel-related Covid cases in early July traced to Iberian Peninsula

Foreign travel ban to be lifted on Monday despite travel being second-highest source of infection

An EasyJet flight arrives at  Ibiza,  Spain, this weekend. Overseas travel is now the second most prominent source of infection after mixing in private households and ahead of other social activity. Photograph: Zowy Voeten/Getty

An EasyJet flight arrives at Ibiza, Spain, this weekend. Overseas travel is now the second most prominent source of infection after mixing in private households and ahead of other social activity. Photograph: Zowy Voeten/Getty

 

More than half of all travel-related Covid-19 cases in the two weeks to July 13th are likely to have contracted the virus while visiting the Iberian Peninsula, new data from the Health Service Executive (HSE) shows.

Overseas travel is now the second most prominent source of infection after mixing in private households and ahead of other social activity, as the Government prepares to allow for the resumption of foreign travel from tomorrow, Monday, July 19th.

The standing advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs up to now has been to “avoid non-essential travel”, but this changes to “travel safely and in accordance with public health guidance and restrictions” next week.

New HSE data shows that of a total of 7,468 new cases of Covid-19 in the two-week period from June 30th-July 13th, there were 984 with a travel history in the previous 14 days, equating to just more than 13 per cent.

Significant numbers of these cases reported having been on the Iberian Peninsula, with 385 in Spain (39 per cent) and 131 in Portugal (13 per cent).

The next highest country on the list was England, as 129 infected people told contact tracers they had been there in the previous two weeks. The next highest locations on the list were Germany (34), Qatar (33), the Netherlands (29), Scotland (26) and Poland (23).

The numbers of positive cases related to foreign travel have been increasing in recent weeks amid repeated appeals from the National Public Health Emergency Team for people to wait until they are fully vaccinated before travelling.

“The tracers were telling me that in recent times there are more flights, [and] more travel-related cases,” said Niamh O’Beirne, the HSE lead on contact tracing, over the weekend.

“The flight-related close contacts are now our second biggest form of close contacts after households.

“Travel has obviously increased. Most of the cases are coming from countries of high prevalence, but also countries that Irish people go to in higher volumes. Spain is bigger than Portugal, quite substantially.”

Ms O’Beirne said that while it is “never 100 per cent possible” to completely ascertain a source of infection, the prevailing school of thought is that cases with a travel history likely contracted the virus while abroad or in transit.

From a total of 7,468 new cases of Covid-19 in the Republic in the two-week period from June 30th to July 13th, there were 984 with a travel history in the previous 14 days.
From a total of 7,468 new cases of Covid-19 in the Republic in the two-week period from June 30th to July 13th, there were 984 with a travel history in the previous 14 days.

“It’s not an exact science, but the fact that you have been abroad and tested positive quite soon afterwards is ultimately a travel-related case,” she said. “People will tell tracers on the phone that flights are busy and airports are busy in some of these locations.”

Close contacts

Ms O’Beirne said there have been 14,700 close contacts reported in the past seven days. Of these, 3,409 were travel-related, which equates to 23 per cent. That was second only to households and ahead of social contacts.

Close contacts related to travel and social activity were previously “way down the list”, Ms O’Beirne said, “but obviously with summer time and opening up, they have become higher”. The positivity rate among close contacts on flights in the past week was 3.8 per cent.

Along with the resumption of foreign travel from Monday, 34 states have been removed from the Mandatory Hotel Quarantine list. There are now 29 countries on the list, with the addition of Cuba – starting from 4am on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, European governments, wary of dramatic spikes in Covid-19 cases as the Delta variant surges particularly among unvaccinated people, have tightened travel rules and sought to ramp up jabs to keep a cap on infections.

Both the Netherlands and the French region of Perpignan saw infections soar by over 500 per cent in a week, leading authorities to pull back on summer reopening measures.

Cyprus, the Netherlands, Spain and the Greek island of Crete have all turned red on the Covid-19 map of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, reflecting an upturn in infections across the Continent after a period of decline.