I thank the committee for its invitation to this meeting to discuss our implementation of the EU digital Covid certificate. I am the chair of the ad hoc subgroup of the senior officials group on Covid-19. The group was established to monitor and update the Government on all operational risks associated with the implementation of the EU digital Covid certificate and the public health risks associated with the easing of restrictions, particularly in light of the progress of the disease and the emergence of variants.
The EU digital Covid certificate regulation entered into application on 1 July. It was developed to facilitate safe free movement of citizens in the EU during the Covid-19 pandemic. The European Commission has built a gateway through which all certificate signatures can be verified across the EU. On 29 June, Ireland joined the gateway. This means that digital Covid certificates issued in Ireland are recognised by authorities in other EU member states and that Ireland can verify digital Covid certificates for travellers arriving from other EU member states and apply the public health rules associated with those certificates.
As a pilot run on 1 July, which was "go live" day for the digital Covid certificate service across Europe, Ireland issued its initial digital Covid certificates, including the necessary digital signature attesting to the fact it was issued by the Irish issuing authority. On the same day, we had a team working at our ports and airports verifying the QR codes of travellers. On 9 July, Ireland published its travel rules, one of only four countries to do so at that stage.
Implementation of the EU digital Covid certificate cuts across a number of Departments and Government agencies. The challenge is that many Departments and agencies are involved in related Covid-19 projects, policy and legislative developments that connect with the implementation of the certificate. The role of the group has been to develop a unified project co-ordinating the respective efforts of colleagues around the system, identify potential risks and gaps, and progress mitigations and alternative solutions to identified gaps and risks.
Thanks to my colleagues right across the Civil Service and the public service, we have made good progress to date on implementing what is a large and complex programme that has required delivery in a tight timeline. On their behalf, I will give the committee a brief overview of the approach being taken.
Our primary focus was to fulfil our EU obligations in a robust and effective way, including operability by 1 July in context of EU compliance and delivery of certificates to eligible members of the public in line with Government’s proposed lifting of restrictions on non-essential travel on 19 July. In doing so, we had to be very mindful of developing the certificate in a way that provides the greatest assurance, in line with data protection, as regards sensitive personal information. A group involving the relevant Departments and agencies, many represented today, have been meeting regularly in plenary session to deliver on the project since the end of May when the Government agreed the group's establishment.
On the generation of certificates, in light of significant pressures on the HSE and particular ICT teams following the cyberattack, the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer, OGCIO, has undertaken the certificate generation process on behalf of Government. Digital Covid-19 certificates for vaccination and recovery are being produced by the OGCIO using data provided by the HSE. Vaccination certificates are being pushed out. This approach is enabling us to get certificates to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible.
In respect of vaccinated persons, the vaccine certificates are being sent out by email where a verified email address is available. That will mainly be the case for people who registered on the vaccine portal. Where no email address is available, vaccine certificates are being posted out to home addresses. That applies mainly to those who have been vaccinated through GPs. Where there is insufficient contact information to send out a certificate, a call centre will be available from 19 July through which a vaccine certificate can be requested once a person’s identity and eligibility have been verified. As regards persons who have recovered from Covid-19, recovery certificates will also be available upon request through the call centre, subject to verifiable evidence of recovery from a prior infection within the previous 180 days.
An upgraded version of the Covid tracker application will be available shortly. This will allow people to upload a paper or PDF version of their certificate to a wallet on their phone. The Covid tracker application serves as a pandemic response tool and currently carries a number of functions that are independent of each other. It will be possible for people to disable those features and use the tracker solely as a digital wallet to store their digital Covid certificate on their phone, should they wish to do so.
Data to support certification is the purview of the Department of Health and the HSE. The HSE has multiple data sources for vaccine and recovery data including, for example, the vaccine portal, GPs, pharmacies and acute hospital settings. The data quality is varied. Extensive data quality work has been undertaken to ensure sufficient and fully accurate information is available to support both generation and issuing of the certificate to an individual. That work is well advanced and as regards 1.9 million vaccinated persons, this data is available to allow for the generation of these certificates on a push basis.
It was necessary to undertake extensive data validation on the vaccination data as many people did not always provide their full contact details, particularly prior to the public portal. In addition, efforts were made to minimise instances whereby certificates are sent to people who have deceased. Work on data relating to persons who have recovered from Covid-19 is continuing apace. Given the quality of this data and the relatively smaller numbers involved, it has been decided to provide recovery certifications on a pull basis, that is, on request. This will enable us to complete missing data fields, authenticate identify and ensure address and email for issuing of the certificate are accurate and up to date.
I will now discuss the generation of certificates based on a negative or not-detected test. Those certificates will be provided through private operators who meet minimum entry requirements including, for example, the use of tests approved by the European Medicines Agency, EMA, an ID verification process, the use of medical professionals and data entry requirements. An information notice to prospective test providers on accessing the digital service required to generate a digital Covid certificate was published last week. To provide citizens with an EU digital Covid certificate, Covid-19 testing providers of both nucleic acid amplification tests, NAATs, including RT-PCR and rapid antigen, will be provided with access to the EU digital test certificate service, operated by the OGCIO within the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Access to this service will allow test providers to generate EU digital test certificates for all negative or not-detected test results, in line with national and EU regulations. Approved access to the EU digital Covid test certificate service is contingent on test providers being compliant with the relevant national and EU regulations in respect of SARS-CoV-2 testing, associated public health measures and the standards and obligations detailed in the standard operating procedure. Prior to receiving access to the service for test certificate generation, providers are required to review and digitally sign the standard operating procedure and return by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the question of services for people who were not vaccinated in Ireland, the EU regulation gives the option to issue vaccination certificates to persons vaccinated elsewhere, with EMA approved vaccines, upon receipt of appropriate proof. The main development focus at the moment is on the delivery of the obligations of the EU regulation in respect of persons who received a vaccination or a test in Ireland. Arrangements for provision of vaccination certificates to persons not vaccinated in Ireland, including Irish passport holders vaccinated in Northern Ireland, will be considered once the initial roll-out is in place. Discussions are ongoing between the European Commission and third countries with a view to facilitating interoperability and mutual recognition of certificates.
It should be noted that the EU digital Covid certificate is not a travel document and the possession of an EU digital Covid certificate will not be a precondition to exercise free movement rights. Therefore, travellers who do not have a digital Covid certificate can provide other verifiable forms of proof of vaccination or a valid negative test.
I will move on to the passenger locator form. Passengers entering Ireland must fill in the Covid-19 passenger locator form before they arrive in Ireland. Failure to do so is an offence. The Covid-19 passenger locator form is now an online form. As of 12 July, carriers are obliged to check for a completed electronic passenger locator form before allowing passengers to board or embark. Through enhancements to the electronic passenger locator form, which are currently under development, travellers will be required to make a statutory declaration as to their travel status, that is, whether they are vaccinated, recovered or in possession of a negative or not-detected test and form of proof. This determines what other public health advice, quarantine or testing measures will be applicable to the passenger, depending on what country they are arriving from.
Once operational, the enhanced electronic passenger locator form receipt will identify those who have a certificate of an EMA-approved vaccination or recovery or negative PCR test or who are otherwise exempt from the requirement to have such a test. For those travelling on a vaccine or recovery certificate, no further pre-departure checks are required by carriers. Passengers travelling on a negative PCR test will be required to provide proof to the carrier of a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of arrival or will be denied boarding. Passengers arriving from designated states who have pre-booked a place in mandatory hotel quarantine will be met at the aircraft and escorted separately from other passengers through the airport building for check-in as required. Currently children aged six and under do not need to take a PCR test prior to travelling to Ireland. The age limit is currently being reviewed.
A verifier application has been developed to support checks of the digital Covid certificate, which allows a mobile device, for example, a phone, to scan the QR code on the certificate in either paper or electronic form. The border management unit and An Garda Síochána will conduct spot checks of public health documentation, including the digital Covid certificate, at ports of entry to the State for the purpose of ensuring the integrity of the enhanced public health travel regime. The verifier application for checking the digital Covid certificate is available to the carriers, should they wish to avail of it.
It is acknowledged that there is considerable complexity associated with travel at the moment given the impact of Covid-19 worldwide. Part of the work of the group has been to provide a unified source of information for the public. There is comprehensive information on both the digital Covid certificate and international travel in general on gov.ie/travel and https://www.dfa.ie/travel/travel-advice/. Both web pages will be kept up to date with all the latest information.
A digital Covid certificate call centre is being established to take calls, provide support and resolve queries for citizens who have been vaccinated and received certificates. It will also resolve issues for those citizens who require a certificate but have not yet received one or are requesting recovery certificates, having recovered from Covid. The contact centre has been created at exceptional pace to manage the required workflows and communications, while meeting all data protection requirements. This has required an incredible effort across multiple Government agencies to put in place the people, processes and technology required. An interim emergency line will be operational from today. We are prioritising queries for people who are travelling in the near future and have received their certificate and may have queries on that certificate. A fully capable centre will be available from Monday, 19 July. This line will be focused on dealing with urgent queries only over the coming days and, therefore, we are requesting that only those with an urgent query contact the centre this week.
The service will be ramped up significantly between now and 19 July, when a full call centre service will be available. Meanwhile, travellers can access the most up-to-date information through gov.ie/travel.
Data protection has been the subject of ongoing engagement with the Data Protection Commission to ensure the process is fully compliant with GDPR regulations. The requisite data controller and data processing agreements are in place for any data transfers in respect of the generation of the certificate. All other requisite processor and sub-processor agreements will be in place prior to any further transfer of data.
On the position as of today, 160,000 paper vaccination certificates were posted yesterday and are due to arrive in homes today. Approximately 1 million emails will issue between yesterday and tomorrow. Altogether, it is anticipated that more than 1.8 million certificates will have been delivered by 19 July. The certificates are generated based on available information and there may be circumstances where information needs to be updated on certificates. This can be done through the call centre. A small number of private operators have already signed up to provide certificates and further information on relevant providers will be made available in due course.
Work is continuing on making the necessary enhancements to the electronic passenger locator form for 19 July. The Department of Transport has been engaging with carriers on their role as part of the verification process and to update them more generally on progress on the implementation of the digital Covid certificate and enhanced electronic passenger locator form.
In summary, progress is continuing apace on the implementation of the EU digital Covid certificate. The challenges involved should not be underestimated but from the technological developments that were required to be stood up at pace, data governance arrangements and scaling up of all operational matters throughout the end-to-end solution, we are on track for the system to be operational for the reopening of non-essential travel on 19 July. I thank all my colleagues for their work to date.