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Jennifer O’Connell: Ireland has its attitude to travel back to front

The Government needs to worry about who is flying in, not who is flying out

Let me see if I've got this right. Someone – because it's all so Monty Pythonesque, let's call her Judith – who is on the pandemic unemployment payment is intercepted at Dublin Airport as she's boarding a flight to Italy, by gardaí doing an immigration check/social welfare fishing expedition.

When she gets back from her holiday – in a green list country, which the Government says is absolutely fine, but really, it would prefer you didn’t – she finds her payment has been cut on the basis that she should have been “available for work” instead of off cavorting in foreign parts. But Judith is not looking for a job because she already has one that she hopes she’ll be going back to eventually.

Once the plight of the country’s 85 or so Judiths who were penalised for going on holidays emerged this week, Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys did an abrupt U-turn and announced their cases would be reviewed. She said people who were on the payment could go on holidays to a green list country without repercussions.

But the issue hasn’t gone away: the Data Protection Commissioner has questioned the legality of inspectors and gardaí doing blanket “immigration” checks on all departing passengers on particular flights. The department countered that the checks have a “firm legal basis”, and that it has saved up to €10 million from 2,000 people leaving the country permanently as a result of them.


Tourists can't make head nor tail of our travel guidance, so they're mostly opting to stay away

It's Monty Python with undercurrents of George Orwell and a dash of Father Ted. If this was mere ineptitude it would be bad, although forgivable in the context of an unfolding crisis. But glossing over civil rights in an effort to tackle welfare fraud is not some accidental slip-up.

The Government deciding that an individual’s right to travel is linked to their job status was a policy decision, not an oversight, and one that was only overturned when there was an outcry.

Humphreys told the Dáil her department could “have communicated more effectively” on the matter. It’s hard to disagree with that analysis. She should read the ESRI working paper on using behavioural science to help fight coronavirus, which says that in a crisis, governments need to communicate with “speed, honesty, credibility”.

"Empathy matters," the paper written by Pete Lunn and others notes. "People need reassurance that those in charge understand how they feel."

Bertie’s book

Instead of empathy and credibility, the Government seems to be taking a leaf out of the Bertie Ahern communications playbook on everything to do with travel. Keep them confused. Operate in a fog of obfuscation. To be fair, it's working. Tourists can't make head nor tail of our travel guidance, so they're mostly opting to stay away.

Nobody seems to know what will happen after they fly in from a non-green list country. In truth, nothing very much happens. They are requested to “restrict their movements” for 14 days. Many do; many more may not. We’ll never know because the Government baulked at introducing an actual managed quarantine, claiming repeatedly that it had been “a disaster” in other countries.

This will come as news to New Zealand (one case) or China (105 cases at time of writing, after maintaining them at close to zero for months).

Out of 60,000 passengers who arrived into Dublin Airport in the first two weeks in July, only 4,100 got a phone call

We’ve gone for a brilliantly Irish solution to the question of whether or not to quarantine arriving travellers. Don’t lock them up; bamboozle them instead. The HSE website says those coming from non-green list countries “will need to” restrict their movements; the Department of Foreign Affairs suggests they are “are required to”; the Department of the Taoiseach says they are “requested to”.

Required, requested or just asked nicely: the truth is it's all irrelevant, because the authorities either don't have the will or the resources to follow through in significant numbers. Out of 60,000 passengers who arrived into Dublin Airport in the first two weeks in July, only 4,100 got a phone call. Ireland is operating a backwards quarantine: we're checking up on people flying out of the country, instead of the people flying in.

Welfare fraud

There is a clear argument for restricting the freedom of people flying in: to stop them spreading the virus. But what public health need is being served by blanket checks on people flying out? That’s about stopping welfare fraud, nothing to do with stopping the virus.

In this column back in March, I wrote that Covid-19 would help to normalise the mass government surveillance of citizens. The backdoor incursion into our civil rights is now happening -- it’s just happening far more overtly than through an app. It’s happening through random checks on passengers and the punishment of citizens whose only misdemeanour was to go on holidays. It happened earlier in the pandemic through cocooning “advice” to the over 70s that managed to sound a lot like a legal requirement.

The Government must stop treating us like errant children, and stop trying to pit us against one another

Winter is coming. Winter may even be here already: there were 85 new cases on Thursday, the same number reported on March 18th. If we’re going to avoid getting slammed by another wave, if we’re going to reopen schools safely, protect residents of nursing homes and direct provision centres and keep the economy stuttering on, the Government needs to stop worrying about who’s flying out, and come up with a plan to manage the people flying in.

More than that, it needs to keep the public on side. This means it must stop treating us like errant children, and stop trying to pit us against one another: the attempts to shame people on pandemic payments, or the public servants whom Fianna Fáil TD Marc MacSharry seems to feverishly imagine are lying around on their sofas watching box sets and laughing at us.

And it needs to make sure that when our civil rights are being curtailed, we are absolutely clear about the public health and statutory basis for it.