Minister of State for Transport Hildegarde Naughton has written to the Minister for Health proposing a trial programme of antigen testing at airports.
Ms Naughton, who has responsibility for aviation, said the improvement in the epidemiological conditions in Ireland and the EU generally, provides an opportunity "to reconsider the potential role of antigen testing to facilitate international transport without an undue negative impact on public health".
However, she said “we will ultimately be guided by public health advice as we have through the pandemic”.
Ms Naughton was speaking after growing political pressure on Government for public health officials to begin a pilot programme of antigen testing for air travel.
Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said last week that there was no evidence to validate the use of rapid antigen testing for air travel. He supported proposals to begin a pilot programme of antigen testing in the sector, but said he had received no such request from any Government department or Minister.
Opening a debate in the Seanad on the aviation sector, Ms Naughton said she had written to Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly “proposing that we consider a pilot in relation to the use of antigen”.
She said officials in the Department of Transport last December engaged with the HSE and the Department of Health about the opportunity airports saw over the Christmas break "to run an in situ assessment of antigen testing with the assistance of established testing providers".
She added that stakeholders offered to assist in onsite training related to the validation of antigen testing and that airlines have on a number of occasions expressed willingness to assist in any pilot programme.
Fianna Fáil Senator Timmy Dooley welcomed the letter about conducting a pilot on antigen testing, saying he would have liked to have seen it happen sooner.
Labour Senator Mark Wall said PCR tests could be used for passengers on the way out, but we should be considering antigen testing for people on the way into the State.
“Antigen testing should be on top of existing structures making those structures a bit more flexible where they can, but at no time weakening what we already have.”
A number of EU countries are accepting antigen testing results for arriving passengers including Denmark, Italy, Germany and France.
He said that in Canada antigen testing "identified the virus in many tests, thereby preventing the mass spread of this terrible virus".
Mr Wall said 143,000 livelihoods totally dependent on aviation. He said that in countries such as Germany “direct State intervention combined with multiple testing options is seeing the beginning of a revival”.
In her address, the Minister acknowledged that about 6.8 per cent of GDP is supported by air transport and tourists arriving by air. Traffic is still 84 per cent below 2019 levels and a range of forecasts suggest it will be 2023 or 2024 before global capacity to pre-Covid levels.
The recovery of the airline sector is clearly linked to the programme but she said the Government supports for the sector will have reached over half a billion euro by the end of the year.
Additional funding is being made available to regional airports and Cork and Shannon will receive funding to provide “route incentives and airport charge rebates to stimulate recovery of lost connectivity”.
Tourism Ireland is in discussions with a number of airlines to promote routes into regional airports to stimulate inbound tourism when international travel recommences "in earnest".