Travel sector fears EU traffic-light system will not be implemented

EU-wide rules to replace green list would open up incoming and outgoing travel

Sanitising self-check in kiosks at Dublin Airport. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Sanitising self-check in kiosks at Dublin Airport. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Ireland has the most draconian rules in Europe for people flying in and out, but has the weakest rules when it comes to following up with those arriving here to ensure they are self-isolating.

The Irish travel industry is in crisis and is crying out for help from the Government, not least in the way it deals with incoming visitors.

What is frustrating for the industry is the absence of a plan that everyone – from airlines and airports to the tour operators and tourists – can work to with any certainty.

“It’s madness, we were given a clear roadmap with dog-grooming salons opening, but nothing for travel,” one source told The Irish Times.

The travel green list was rolled out to much fanfare in July. The idea was to have a list of countries people could safely travel to and from without having to restrict their movements. It was green for go; except it wasn’t.

Even as the Department of Foreign Affairs was saying it was fine to travel to the 15 countries on the list, the Department of Health was advising against unnecessary travel, even to the green-list countries.

The list was due to be updated every two weeks, but nearly six weeks passed with nothing happening. Then countries started falling off the list as Covid-19 case numbers across Europe climbed. As of last Thursday, it had no names on it at all.

At the Oireachtas Transport Committee this week, Ryanair chief executive Eddie Wilson warned that Ireland was now saying “we’re closed to every country in Europe”.

The head of the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation Eoghan O’Mara Walsh is equally scathing. “The green list has never worked,” he said. “What the Government has done for months is put up a closed sign on the whole country. It is bad for people and bad for the economy and doesn’t achieve very much.”

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He called on the Government to introduce a traffic-light system as early as possible “to save lives and save livelihoods”.

That may happen next week if the Government adopts EU-wide rules which would see the introduction of a colour-coded system based on data provided by the European Centre for Disease Control.

Under those rules, countries where there are fewer than 25 cases per 100,000 people and the percentage of positive tests is less than 3 per cent will be designated green. Countries will be deemed orange if there are fewer than 50 cases per 100,000 people, and red if there are more than 50 cases per 100,000. There will be a grey category for countries with insufficient data.

People travelling from red zones will have to restrict their movements for 14 days or produce a Covid-19 test to show they are negative.

Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan told the transport committee that EU foreign ministers will discuss the system at a meeting next Tuesday. However, he warned that public health remained the responsibility of member states, indicating that adoption here might not be as complete as the travel sector hopes.

His comment set off alarm bells across the sector. “We need to see the system implemented in full,” O’Mara Walsh said.

An Aer Lingus spokesman agreed and said Ireland’s adoption of the system is urgently required in order to make “a meaningful contribution” to increasing the level of safe international travel.

While the virus entered the State due to international travel – in the same way it spread to every other country across the world – the number of cases linked to overseas travel in recent months has been less than 5 per cent.

Antigen tests

Along with the traffic-light system, there are also proposals for rapid antigen testing facilities to be rolled out at airports. Combined with a requirement for an all-clear test from red-zone countries, this would allow the country open more broadly. But the Government has been slow to act on this.

One travel measure introduced here has been the passenger locator form whereby people coming from non-green list countries declare where they are going in the State and promise to restrict their movements for 14 days after arrival.

The system, critics say, is shambolic and ineffective.

People who fill in the form are supposed to get two text messages and a call from the authorities checking they are where they said they would be. There is, however, nothing to stop them travelling wherever they want and simply lying when questioned. Even if they admit to not complying, there are no sanctions.

“It is completely flawed and has never worked,” says O’Mara Walsh.

Passengers with experience of the system have mixed views.

Agnes McLaverty arrived from Norway two weeks ago. She completed an online form “and have received several text messages ‘asking’ that I restrict my movements. Not sure why so polite, but I’ve complied”.

Meanwhile, Annie Atkins came to Ireland from the UK on a ferry and isolated for two weeks. “We filled in our forms but never heard from anyone.”

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