The introduction of a Covid-19 testing regime for people coming to Ireland will add significantly to the cost of in-bound international travel but is still "the lesser of two evils", according to the umbrella group representing travel agents and tour operators.
The chief executive of the Irish Travel Agents Association (ITAA) Pat Dawson told The Irish Times that while the new rule had generated a surge in calls to his members all over the country, there was "no sign of people panicking and there is no-one looking to cancel holidays or change plans".
All arrivals into the State - whether vaccinated or not - will need a clear Covid test result from Friday onwards.
Those travelling with an antigen test result will need to have obtained it within 48 hours of arrival into the State, and it will have to be professionally administered. No self-administered tests will be accepted, under rules considered by cabinet. Those with a PCR test result will have a longer pre-travel window of 72 hours before arrival.
Airlines across Europe are also continuing to fly as normal with no indications there will be any widespread cancellations or curtailments as a result of the latest upheaval to beset the travel sector.
Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary reacted angrily to the announcement, describing the advice as “nonsense” and “gobbledygook”.
“We note that neither the CMO [chief medical officer] nor the Govt have defined what a ‘professionally done’ antigen test means or look like. How are airline or border control staff supposed to understand what a professionally done antigen test is, or looks like, when neither the CMO nor the Govt have even defined it,” he said in a statement.
“If this Govt had any spine or leadership, it would ignore Nphet’s nonsense advice on travel.”
Mr Dawson said he accepted the Government had to do something as concern about the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 mounted.
“It had to be done and was probably the lesser of two evils,” he said, adding that it would have been worse if more severe restrictions had been imposed on overseas travel.
He suggested that the new rules would add in the region of €200 on to the cost of a family holiday in the run-up to Christmas once the cost of testing overseas was factored in. “I don’t think it will stop people travelling but it will be an extra cost people don’t need,” he said.
He added that his members had been fielding calls since last week from an increasingly anxious public. “There is certainly fear out there over whether or not it will stop at this,” he said.
Paul Hackett of online travel agency Click & Go said the uncertainty had impacted on bookings this week but he too accepted the inevitability of the move.
“It is having a significant impact on new bookings. All of the recent coverage and the fear of a lockdown does that. Today bookings have fallen off a cliff but that happens on the day announcements are made,” he said.
“I don’t think there was any choice, the alternative would have been to do nothing and then there would have been uproar from the anti-travel brigade.”
He described the new rules, which will be provisionally in place for a two week period as “inconvenient” but he accepted the Government was “caught between a rock and a hard place”.
He expressed hope that more scientific data would emerge in the coming days to allow travel resume without restrictions.
“It is only two weeks and if we have to deal with two weeks of antigen testing but keep travel open then we will deal with it. The two weeks will give us some data and it will be very hard to maintain this if the data is not worrying.
“The good news is that they are allowing antigen testing,” he said. “It is so easy to get them in all the tourism resorts in Europe and they won’t cost much more than €35.”
Not everyone was as pleased with the news that PCR tests or antigen tests would allow people come into the country.
UCD virologist, Dr Gerald Barry said that "using a once off antigen tests like this to stop SARS-CoV-2 coming into Ireland, is scientifically unsound, and whoever came up with it should have a serious look at themselves.
In a series of Twitter posts he added that he was “actually embarrassed for whoever thought this would be a good idea.”
He said PCR testing only was is better in these circumstances but said a 72 hour window was too long.
“Shorten that and require it on the other side too. Consider false negatives as well as the chance of infection in the interim. Has nothing been learned?? This is all just fluff to look like something is being done.”
*This article was amended on Wednesday, December 1st to reflect that 72- and 48-hour windows for PCR and antigen testing respectively apply to an individual's arrival into Ireland from abroad, not the time of departure as previously stated