Irish stranded abroad despite full recovery from Covid-19

Government acknowledges ‘residual positives’ from people who are not a health risk

Irish people are being prevented from travelling to Ireland from abroad because they are testing positive for Covid-19 even though they have fully recovered from the disease and have undergone the required isolation period.

Such cases, known as “residual positives”, arise with PCR tests because of the presence of some non-viable virus still in the body, and are not a threat to public health, according to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC).

Other countries have revised their Covid-19 travel rules to allow people in these cases return home once their circumstances are verified. The Government declined to say how many Irish people are involved, but indicated it was trying to find an EU-wide solution to the problem.

One person who was affected after contracting Covid in early January while in Portugal said he believed the measure was "unnecessary and discriminatory". Gary Ensell said he had outlined his position and that of other Irish people to the Government, the Irish Embassy in Lisbon, and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC)– to no avail.

This scenario could apply up to three months after initial infection, he said. “There is no pathway for these individuals to satisfy the pre-departure testing requirements and be allowed to board a flight to Ireland.”

Between 10 and 15 Irish people who live in the village in Portugal where he resides for a period every year were “residual positives”, and were stranded there or in Ireland, he said. Mr Ensell said they could neither contract the virus nor transmit it as they had a recognised immunity period that could last up to eight months.

The shortsightedness of the policy was only one part of the issue; as “attempting to get the draconian position reversed” was proving to be hugely difficult, he said.

Since January 16th, all passengers arriving into Ireland (except those arriving from Northern Ireland) are required to have a negative or “not detected” result from a pre-departure Covid-19 PCR test that was carried out no more than 72 hours prior to arrival in Ireland.

“This requirement is clearly discriminatory and isolates a growing population of individuals who have contracted Covid-19, and has trapped them in foreign countries,” Mr Ensell said.

Canadian position

On January 19th the Canadian government revised its position, “recognising they had annexed many citizens and trapped them abroad”, Mr Ensell said. It now allowed for a positive PCR screening that “is at least 14 days but no more than 90 days old prior to the scheduled departure of the aircraft”.

As he has dual Irish-Canadian citizenship, he eventually travelled to Canada though he tested positive, as a Portuguese public health doctor confirmed he had tested positive in early January, and had undergone isolation.

The Department of Health confirmed "public health officials, both in Ireland and at EU level, were examining the question of individuals who, having previously recovered from Covid-19, may continue to produce a positive PCR test result in the following weeks".

“Under the current mandatory testing regime in Ireland, exemptions from the pre-departure test requirement are in place for international transport workers, passengers travelling with an urgent medical need and for travellers with genuine humanitarian emergencies unable to obtain a pre-departure RT-PCR test before travel,” it said.

The Department of Foreign Affairs said it had no indication of how many Irish people may be stranded abroad because of “residual positive” status.

The IHREC confirmed it had a small number of cases raised with it on Covid-related restrictions to international travel. “We have received just four queries relating to different aspects of restricted inward and outward travel from Ireland. These include issues of travel for medical treatment and mandatory quarantine,” a spokesman said.

It confirmed it had underlined to Government that Covid restrictions and legislation must meet international human rights requirements of legality, necessity, proportionality and non-discrimination. “It’s also essential that, once introduced, there is effective oversight of how such powers are implemented to ensure they continue to meet these standards,” he said.