Q&A: What does Omicron mean for travel to and from Ireland?

New rules for international travel are on the way. Here’s everything you need to know

Dublin Airport: all arrivals will need a negative predeparture PCR or antigen test, no matter what their vaccination status. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Dublin Airport: all arrivals will need a negative predeparture PCR or antigen test, no matter what their vaccination status. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Okay, cut to the chase. What do we know about the new rules governing international travel?
We now know that everybody who arrives in the State, whether vaccinated or not, will need a negative Covid-test result from 12.01am on Friday, December 3rd, onwards.

What kind of test is that, PCR or antigen?
That depends. People arriving into the State from overseas who have been vaccinated or recently recovered from Covid must provide a negative antigen test result taken in the 48 hours before their arrival, or a negative a PCR result taken in the 72 hours before their arrival.

Anyone who has not been vaccinated must provide a negative PCR test taken no more than 72 hours before their arrival (antigen tests will not be accepted). Anyone arriving from any of seven southern African "scheduled States" (see note below) must have a negative PCR test result, regardless of their vaccination status.  

Grand. And I can do the antigen test using a kit from Lidl, right?
Absolutely wrong. The antigen test, as with the PCR test, will have to be professionally administered. No self-administered or home tests will be accepted.

But I have my digital Covid cert. I thought that meant I could travel unimpeded – at least around the EU and the US and a few other places.
It did – and it still does – but that is going to change from Friday.

So how much do these tests cost?
In Ireland, antigen tests cost from about €35; PCR tests can cost anywhere between €60 and €150, depending on which company you use and how fast you want the results back.

Is anyone exempt from the new testing rules?
Under-11s will not need negative tests to come and go.

And how long are the rules going to be in place?
They will be reviewed in two weeks. That should give the Government and public-health officials more time to establish how serious the Omicron variant is.

How has the news been greeted?
The response has been mixed. The reintroduction of Covid testing for people coming to Ireland will add significantly to the cost of their travel but is still “the lesser of two evils”, according to the chief executive of the Irish Travel Agents Association, Pat Dawson.

That’s not exactly heartening.
No, but on the plus side he also says there is “no sign of people panicking, and there is no one looking to cancel holidays or change plans”.

And what’s happening with airlines?
Not a whole lot. Airlines across Europe are continuing to fly as normal, with no indications of widespread cancellations or curtailments.

How easy will it be to get a test overseas, and how much will it cost?
It should be simple to arrange an antigen test anywhere popular with Irish tourists, including all big European citiesaccording to Paul Hackett of the online travel agency Click&Go, who welcomes the decision to accept antigen tests.

Does everyone agree with him?
No. Dr Gerald Barry, a virologist at University College Dublin, says that “using a once-off antigen test 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 tweets he adds that he is “embarrassed for whoever thought this would be a good idea”. PCR testing is better, he believes, but the 72-hour predeparture testing window is too generous. “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.”

If I plan to leave Ireland could I get a PCR test free from the HSE and use that?
No. The Government has made it clear that anyone looking for a PCR test for inessential travel will have to have it done privately. HSE test centres do not provide the paperwork you need to use their tests to travel abroad.

And is a quarantine requirement likely to be in place on my return to Ireland?
That depends on where you are coming from and what your test result says. Under the plans being discussed by Cabinet there will be no restrictions for people who come into the country with a negative result, unless they are arriving from, or were recently in, one of seven southern African countries (scheduled States) that are already subject to extra restrictions.

What are the seven countries?
Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The Department of Foreign Affairs has changed its travel advisory to “avoid non-essential travel” for these countries.

So would the restrictions be in place for all arrivals from all other countries, including the UK?
It is too early to say. The UK has exempted Ireland from its PCR-test and home-quarantine obligations, as the countries share the Common Travel Area. But health officials here will have to consider if people coming from the UK to Ireland present the same risk as people going to the UK from here.

And what would happen if I just turned up at the airport with no antigen or PCR test?
Again, there is no clarity on that yet, but it is likely on arrival in Ireland that you would be forced to quarantine at home or even face a fine if you didn’t have a clear result.

Do we still have the hotel-quarantine system?
Nope. The legislation covering that has lapsed – but the Cabinet it to consider that issue this week, too.

Has the Department of Foreign Affairs said anything about foreign travel?
Yes. It has urged Irish citizens in the seven southern African countries most affected by the latest Covid-19 travel restrictions to continue to try to find a way back to Ireland via “commercial means” and to maintain contact with their airline or travel agent. There is what the DFA describes as “limited availability and continued disruption to flights from the region”, and Irish officials were liaising with people in South Africa and other affected countries through the Irish Embassy in Pretoria.

I have a package holiday booked for South Africa. What do I do?
You will have to contact your travel agent or tour operator. You should be able to cancel or rearrange the holiday – tour operators are by now wearily accustomed to what happens next. With advisories in place, people who have booked with tour operators should also be able to process refunds or reschedule trips.

I didn’t book through an agent. Where does that leave me?
In a much trickier position. If an airline cancels flights – which many are already doing – you will be entitled to a refund or a rerouting. You will have to contact other providers, such as hotels and car-hire companies, separately. If an official advisory against travel is in place, then people who have booked independent holidays and have travel insurance to that location could be covered by their policy.

I don’t have travel insurance yet.
Then you are at the mercy of the providers.

And if my flight is cancelled?
Travel disruption caused by Covid-19 is considered “extraordinary circumstances” outside the control of a transport provider, such as an airline. Consequently, compensation will not apply. For air travel, according to EU regulation 261, passengers on cancelled flights may be entitled to have their journey either rerouted to the final holiday destination or refunded. If a land or sea journey is cancelled, passengers are entitled to rerouting or a refund.

I have a holiday booked to somewhere not directly covered by the travel restrictions. What should I do?
First, don’t panic. We are still in the very early stages of the latest phase of the pandemic, and there is no certainty about what is going to happen next. Travel agents and tour operators have been fielding calls from concerned customers, but right now it is business as usual. That could change very quickly.

I have a holiday booked but am nervous now and don’t want to go. Where do I stand?
That depends on where you are going and how you have booked.While refunds or rescheduling may be possible, that is by no means certain. If airlines take off and you are not on the plane, they can simply treat you as a no-show and you will get nothing back. As ever, it is important to keep the channels of communication open. And, again, don’t panic and pay attention to the travel advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs and other relevant sources.

Do I need to know anything else?
All people travelling to Ireland are required by law to complete a Passenger Locator Form (PLF) prior to travel. 

Information sought includes the mobile phone number the person will be using in Ireland, email address, place of residence while in the country and flight or ferry details.

If you are travelling anywhere in the EU in the months ahead and do not have a European Health Insurance Card or think the one you do have may have expired, then get it sorted. The card gives you access to public health services at no cost. Don’t ever pay for the card. Some sites will try charging for the service, but it is free through the official site, ehic.ie.

And by imposing these new restrictions can we stop Omicron coming into Ireland?
That’s the big question. Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said on Monday it was “likely” the Omicron variant was already in Ireland. A number of suspect cases were undergoing genome sequencing on Monday. Dr Cillian de Gascun, the director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory, has already said he would be surprised if Omicron hadn’t already arrived in Ireland to some degree – and by the time you read this, Irish cases may well have been reported. According to the World Health Organisation, the new variant is likely to spread widely. “Omicron has an unprecedented number of spike mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic,” it said. “The overall global risk related to the new variant of concern Omicron is assessed as very high.”

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