Updated 36 minutes ago
CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER Tony Holohan said public health experts are still left to ponder whether people should travel home from overseas for Christmas.
Speaking at a press conference that evening, Holohan said the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) will certainly do so if the government needs to be considered or advised on the matter in the coming weeks.
He said TheJournal.ie According to NPHET, the risks associated with international travel are “very, very high”.
The Irish government is pushing for a quick test regime in place by next month to ensure friends and families can travel to see loved ones for Christmas.
Last week the cabinet agreed to bring Ireland into line with the EU traffic light system.
Holohan’s comments come after an Oireachtas committee was told today that a general Covid-19 testing protocol for European member states traveling internationally should be ready within “weeks”.
Such a move could allow Irish passengers to travel abroad under rigorous testing before the flight.
Holohan said he was aware of the decision made last week about the EU traffic light system.
While he said the proportion of cases related to international travel was “very low”, NPHET was concerned about anything that would “weaken” the defense measures in place in Ireland.
He said the scale of the virus in Europe and the US was “very worrying”, adding that it was a “rapidly deteriorating situation”.
“The movement of the population for whatever reason is seriously in question at this moment,” he said.
The chief medical officer admitted that the government must make decisions about what Europe to consider and what makes internet mandatory for international travel.
Holohan said he would “absolutely” and “totally” deny any suggestion that he was alarming and stated that the risks associated with travel are very great.
When asked by an Oireachtas committee last week whether NPHET would have to sign a new travel system and test regime, Junior Transport Minister Hildegarde Naughten said:
“This will be a government decision.”
She said the government will obviously consult the Department of Health and public health officials, but the decision would be made by the government
Next week, the Chief Medical Officer will address the Oireachtas Transport Committee on air travel advice and the potential for Covid-19 testing at airports.
The committee was informed earlier today that the EU Aviation Safety Agency and ECDC have been tasked with developing a joint testing regime to remove the need for quarantine and other restrictions.
Filip Cornelis, Director of Aviation at the European Commission, told the Oireachtas Transport Committee today that while some airports in Europe are using rapid tests and antigen tests, it “is clear that we need a common approach” when it comes to testing across Europe.
“We need mutual recognition” of the tests used in each country, he said, adding that there is no point in introducing a testing regime if other countries “do not recognize the test carried out by the traveler”.
Irish aviation “devastated”
In his opening written address to the committee, the Head of Corporate Affairs for the Irish Aviation Authority, Paul Brandon, said that the pandemic has devastated the aviation industry in Ireland and that air traffic levels have now returned to the levels of the late 1980s.
He said it could be 2024 or 2025 before the industry fully recovers.
Pre-departure tests as part of a new traffic light system should enable aviation to reopen effectively, he said.
As part of the new traffic light plan, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control will publish a weekly map of the EU, using a three-tier color system to indicate the risk in each area.
The new traffic light system, which Ireland plans to put into effect on November 8th, is designed to enable relatives and friends to return to Ireland for Christmas this year.
The National Virus Reference Laboratory (NVRL) is believed to be in the process of validating LAMP tests to allow anyone to wish to leave the country. If the new test is approved by the Department of Health, it could be included in the Irish testing regime to reopen international travel.
Currently the PCR test is the only validated test recognized in Ireland. After wiping, the PCR test must be sent to a laboratory for analysis. The new LAMP test does not work and can give results in about an hour.
The European Commission has been campaigning since June to harmonize the easing of restrictions, said Cornelis.
Tests before departure
As a society, we have to live with Covid-19, Brandon told committee members, explaining that effective pre-departure harmonization of European testing “should be put in place as soon as possible.”
He said that when passengers make a booking, they need to know that their flight will take place and that the rules won’t change.
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If someone tests positive, they just don’t travel, he said.
Testing will be an “important piece of the puzzle,” said Brandon, who agreed that an EU-wide testing system is needed.
He said passengers could be tested on the same day as the trip or a day or two in advance. It might be possible to use sub-gold standard tests while testing to see if someone is negative rather than positive, he said.
Brandon said the sector should see a recovery from next summer.
Re-opening borders safely with a coordinated testing regime “would be a lifeline,” said Brandon, but added that the real benefits will only be seen when all countries implement an approved testing system.
Cornelis informed the committee that further work is being carried out by ECDC, which is working with the Commission to expand health security guidance on the testing protocol.
Passengers without trust
He said the problem with travel restrictions is that passengers don’t trust them due to ever-changing rules. He said the quarantine imposed in some countries nullifies the purpose of travel for many.
There is a general perception in the sector that as long as vaccine is not available, a common testing protocol is needed for all EU countries, he added.
The commission has found that some states want to impose border restrictions when this is not really a recommendation from ECDC, said Cornelis.
The way to get passengers back to travel is through a “harmonized and stable system” of measures “that shouldn’t be quarantined,” he said.
With regard to travel between the EU and the US, the forthcoming new test protocol could also be useful in opening up travel to America, the committee was told.
While such measures are being introduced in Europe first, Cornelis said he could see the scope of cooperation with other countries that are adopting similar protocols. He said the US was an “obvious candidate” but it was “a little early to take these steps for us”.
The IAA managed 38,172 flights in September 2020, compared to nearly 110,000 in the same month last year, committee members said today.
Brandon warned that air traffic levels in Ireland are consistently below the rest of the European air traffic network, which he described as “deeply worrying”.
Brandon also said Ireland should take a leadership role in promoting a standardized approach to airport departure testing and the elimination of quarantine requirements across Europe.
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