Aviation Sector: Discussion

Apologies have been received from Deputy Kieran O'Donnell. We will discuss issues affecting the aviation sector in Ireland. I welcome the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, and officials from the Department.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I call the Minister to make his opening statement.

I welcome the opportunity to come before the committee in light of the impacts of the pandemic on aviation to address developments in the future direction of international travel policy.

Despite the decimation of the aviation industry through this pandemic, essential air connectivity has been maintained. The industry and the people who work within aviation have stepped up to meet the challenge of providing air transport services in a way that protects workers and passengers. The preference is for aviation to continue to provide air travel services as they act responsibly in mitigating and managing the risks from Covid-19.

Highlighting the impact of the pandemic, Central Statistics Office, CSO, data between 2019 and the second quarter of 2020 show that 10.3 million fewer passengers used Irish airports and there were 67,000 fewer fights. The risks to aviation are evident. The damage to route connectivity and to the structural integrity of the industry will determine the future capability of aviation to return to normal when the time is right and has wider implications for the future potential of our economy and citizens.

At the start of this pandemic, the Government was criticised for having no plan for aviation or for international travel. An aviation recovery task force was established to develop that plan. Some recommendations have been delivered, for example, the protocol of safe air travel, and further work is ongoing to deliver other recommendations.

We have a direction now within the national plan for living with Covid-19 and the European Union proposal for a traffic light model for international travel. Ireland has updated the green list, a first step to realigning with the proposed EU approach. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade travel advice correspondingly advises normal precautions concerning these countries. In line with the EU proposal, changes to the green list will be better communicated to the travelling public. Ireland's national plan for living with Covid-19 makes a commitment to broadly support the European Commission proposal to promote a common approach to travel restrictions and movement that is consistent with public health requirements, aware of public resources and capacity and takes into account any special arrangements that may be required for the common travel area. My Department is continuing to work with colleagues across government and public health authorities on the application of the model for Ireland.

From my perspective as Minister, aviation is a global industry that requires states to collaborate and co-operate on matters of international travel. Every effort should be made to ensure restrictions on free movement, where necessary, have due regard to the benefit for public health and are based upon reasonable grounds and evidence. However, while I emphasise that free movement is an important principle, it is clear that if the epidemiological situation deteriorates significantly, the prospect of another full-blown lockdown is not inconceivable and must be avoided.

Airport testing, if established, would be one element in a multi-layered approach to prevention of the spread of Covid-19. It would complement the existing Covid-19 mitigating measures. Current air passenger travel protocols include physical distancing, face coverings and sanitation protocols. There is provision for a passenger health declaration concerning symptoms and close contacts as well as a passenger locator form for providing follow-up targeted information to arriving passengers. The proposed European Commission approach sets out a preference for testing over restrictions. However, there are varying views across member states concerning restrictions and testing options. The international travel approach to be adopted should be a risk management approach, balancing the risks to public health with the broader social and economic risks.

I will finish with some remarks concerning the ongoing review of aviation supports. As a result of the impact of this pandemic on aviation, there will continue to be a risk of reduced capacity, less route choice and lower demand in the months ahead with or without intervention by the State or at EU level. This will be reflected in the autumn and winter schedules of the airlines. My Department is continuing to explore the options for aviation supports and is working through these with colleagues in government. This is unfortunately a matter of hard choices about the priorities of keeping schools open, keeping hospital beds free for those who need them, keeping economies alive and protecting jobs. I will ensure that the support mechanisms for the aviation sector will continue to be reviewed in context of the Government's plans. I will continue to work towards the commitment made in the aviation recovery task force report so that aviation is well positioned for recovery and can return to previous levels of success.

I thank committee members for inviting us. I am delighted to appear before the committee to speak about the proposed EU traffic light model for international travel, airport testing and aviation supports and to answer any questions committee members may have. The Minister has highlighted the vital role that our aviation industry has played, and will continue to play, throughout this pandemic and beyond.

I thank everyone involved for their hard work. The Government is committed to assisting the aviation sector in any way it can to ensure it can return to normal operations as soon as possible and maintain our global connectivity.

I refer to the range of Government supports that have been made available to the aviation industry. These include the horizontal Government supports available to all citizens and businesses, including grants, low-cost loans, the waiver of commercial rates and deferred tax liabilities. Many who are employed in the sector have been able to avail of the Covid-19 wage subsidy schemes and, where necessary, the Covid-19 unemployment payment. Larger aviation companies may qualify for liquidity support under the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, pandemic stabilisation and recovery fund.

Legislation has been introduced to allow for a State guarantee for refund credit notes to consumers of Irish licensed travel agents and tour operators for cancelled bookings, ensuring the monetary value is secured until such time as it is used in the future. These supports notwithstanding, it is acknowledged that our airlines and aviation stakeholders have had to make difficult decisions to best ensure their long-term commercial viability. Departmental officials and I continue to engage with industry representatives concerning their needs and supports over the coming weeks and months of this pandemic.

I now turn to the proposed European approach for Covid-19 restrictions and international travel. This proposal has a number of elements. It involves harmonised data and country coding under a traffic light model based on available epidata, which will be mapped by the European Centre of Disease Control, ECDC. This is an aspect of the proposal on which member states can easily agree. Other aspects of the proposal are more challenging, particularly discussions on testing and quarantine restrictions, which fall to the public health authorities' competence and responsibility in each member state.

The aviation industry has stated that in order for the proposed traffic light model to be viable, testing has to be part of the solution as an alternative to 14-day isolation, and measures should only be contemplated for higher-risk locations. It has been made clear by industry that the achievement of this proposed model will determine future decisions made by industry. The European proposal is the subject of intense discussion but it is expected to progress to a decision at the General Affairs Council on 13 October. In the meantime, member states are endeavouring to find a compromise in the challenging areas of testing and restriction regimes.

With regard to airport testing, members will be aware that a number of European countries are currently offering the option of testing of arriving passengers either at predeparture or on arrival, usually polymerase chain reaction testing, PCR, as an alternative to restrictions. The DAA recently presented its research into options for Covid-19 testing at its facilities at Dublin and Cork to me. Such a proposed testing service could also be extended to other locations.

The preference for airport testing involves testing that is quick, cheap, available, and meets the public health threshold for accuracy, specificity and sensitivity. The aviation industry is proposing antigen as a preferred option for travel testing. This is understandable given the relatively cheaper price and quicker turnaround time. Antigen-based testing, however, is not considered by the World Health Organization, WHO, to be suitable for an international travel testing context. The DAA has carried out research into other types of testing but their application is not yet fully validated.

It is clear from my discussions with industry that consideration of testing and the traffic light system will determine the future direction of international travel. My Department will continue to lend support to the aviation sector through this difficult period by working steadfastly with stakeholders on these important issues. I am happy to answer any further questions members may have.

I thank the Minister of State.

I welcome the Minister and the Minister of State. I want to hone in on the passenger figures in and out of Dublin, Cork, Shannon and Knock airports. During quarter 2 of this year 155,000 people flew in and out of Dublin, 62 people flew through Shannon, 803 through Kerry and 7,800 through Cork. Covid aside, this dramatic imbalance is not being addressed appropriately. Shannon Airport's market share in that period was 0.07%. There also is a need for some policy review in this regard. It is not all just about rapid testing and getting passengers in safely and out the other end safely. We need something. Shannon Airport is on its knees. Its very solvency will be in question if action is not taken in that regard. I would like to hear the Minister's response to those figures showing the dramatic loss of share for the airport. How does the Government propose, in policy terms, to address that? In advance of the General Affairs Council on 13 October, what measures are being put in place to deal with the new measures we will, hopefully, move to?

We are all concerned about the situation in every one of our airports. The figures are dramatically down across the board. The latest figures I have are for 4 October with 12,773 passengers arriving in Dublin, 1,076 in Cork, and 1,067 in Shannon. It varies day to day, but across the board we are looking at an average 90% fall in traffic across all routes in all airports. This is having dramatic consequences for airports, airlines and people working in the industry. That is a real problem for this country and the Government. We have to retain our connectivity as an island, as we depend on it. We seek to do that across the board on all routes in all airports, but particularly in Cork and Shannon airports, as the Deputy said, because of the regional importance of development.

The only way we can manage this is getting the balance right between protecting public health and maintaining connectivity. The best way of supporting the airports and our aviation industry is to make sure it is safe and that people are confident the approach we are taking is working to help us to manage the virus as well as manage our aviation industry.

I thank the Minister. We are tight for time so I will call Senator Dooley.

I welcome the presentation. The reality is Shannon Airport was under pressure prior to the emergence of the Covid pandemic, but now its survival is in question. Unless we can get an appreciable level of activity back at the airport, with a level of movement of passengers throughout European countries, then its future will be in great jeopardy. Of course it will be difficult for the forthcoming period but we need the Government to sign up to that. I am sure this is what we will also hear from the airline and airport representatives in our later session.

I believe that notwithstanding agreement at EU level to generate passenger movement, the Minister will be well aware it is not going to be viable for airports such as Shannon to retain the services they have. Airlines will need significant support to keep key routes open. There are many important routes but for Shannon Airport the key routes are Heathrow and the UK generally, and the east coast of the US, principally New York and Boston. Can the Minister give us some indication that the Government will look favourably at providing route support to those strategic routes for tourism and business to the region?

Our intention has to be giving competence on all routes and giving supports across the industry, as we have done in many different industries, to get it through this difficult time and, critically, to get confidence back in the ability to travel and the ability to strike the balance between safe travel and protecting public health.

One of the most difficult times of this summer for the likes of Shannon Airport was in early July when there was huge public anger about the risk of passengers coming into the airport from the US being a source of the flaring again of the disease. I do not believe that was a fair assessment of the risk from that sector. Perhaps there is not a fair assessment of the risk of flying itself. I understand that the protocols in airports and on aeroplanes create an environment that makes it safe. That element has been managed. We need the further element around the rules and regulations regarding when one can travel or whether one should travel.

One difficulty we have had through the summer and into the early autumn was that on the one hand, we had an interest in trying to maintain connectivity and on the other, the public health message was not to fly or leave the country. We need to get over that obstacle and problem first and foremost. The European Commission approach can help us do that. It has to be reciprocal not just with European Union countries but with other countries such as the UK, the US and other destinations outside of the European Union. This has to be a standardised system which allows us to have some sort of confidence as to the approach that is being taken. It also must survive the flaring up and falling and rising of this virus, which has been part of the problem we have had in the last three months. Where we thought we had a green list in place, suddenly we find that the numbers have changed and two weeks later, it does not apply. We went with the European green list on 8 September and now, barely three to four weeks later, there is not a single country or possibly just one remaining on that list. That has been the difficulty.

What we need now to support the industry in Shannon and elsewhere is some sort of certainty, as best we can, whereby in the six-month period ahead of us, the protocols and the approach to making aviation safe stay the same. To be perfectly frank, that has been difficult.

I am sorry, Minister, but we are very tight for time.

The Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, may wish to come in as well to answer some of the questions.

To have an understanding of this issue, one reason is there is not clear certainty internationally in this regard. The UK Government, for instance, today is saying that it is going to defer until November before coming forward with its view as to what is the correct approach to take. There are different views. The Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, mentioned that antigen testing has great benefits in respect of speed of turnaround but one has to listen to public health officials, not just here but in the World Health Organization and in the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, as to which testing we use and where we can apply it. We must recognise that testing is not the only measure that we want to put in place but it is one that we said we wanted to get right in the European approach. That is what we will do. This is with a view to a six-month process that will support all airports and airlines to get travel back in a way that is not stop-start.

I apologise for speaking with my back to the Ministers but that is the nature of circles.

I have a question on the task force on aviation recovery. I have its final report to hand, which was published on 7 July, exactly three months ago. Is that report and all of its parts endorsed by the Ministers and by the Government? As far as I can see it has not been fully adopted and it certainly has not been fully implemented. When I had an opportunity to raise it with the Taoiseach, for example, he raised concerns about the make-up of the panel of that task force. Is the report Government policy?

Yes, the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, who may wish to come in on this point, and I met the members of that task force after it came to its findings. We said we did support and wished to implement them and some of those measures have been implemented. In respect of those that have not, the primary problem has been that there has been a conflict or a difficulty within Government because there is also an imperative towards public health and trying to avoid the risk of people bringing the virus in from international travel. In that three months, there has been a significant change in that regard, in that the Government on 8 September said that we did want to work with the European Commission and with other European countries in order that there would be aviation routes and countries to which we can state that we are recommending it is safe to travel again. For those countries where there is a real risk and where there is a high incidence of Covid-19, that is, red list countries, we would look for mechanisms to try to minimise the risk by ensuring that any people coming in could be tested in advance in order that we can identify and reduce that risk. That has not been an easy thing to achieve here or indeed in other countries. There have been different views within the health system and elsewhere as to what are the appropriate measures to take. There is even difficulty in getting access to relevant testing capability which will not result in reducing our testing capability here for domestic public health purposes. That is something that we are committed to resolving, through doing this with European colleagues and other countries, reciprocally. When we achieve that, it will meet the key objectives that were set out in the task force report.

Following up that point with the Minister, we have had the report of the task force from 7 July for a number of months now. It confirmed the calls of a range of people in the sector, which have been echoed in various quarters around Europe and the world, as to the type of regime that needs to happen to allow aviation to recover as best it can. We are months down the line here and we are still talking about the types of difficulties and options that are available. There is no clarity on when a decision will be made. It is one point to outline the range of considerations but the Government is elected to make decisions and take action on those. A report has been sitting there now for three months. Groups, including Sinn Féin, have been advocating for that type of approach but yet on 7 October, we still are having conversations about the options and types of difficulties. Will the Minister opt for an antigen testing regime? Is it going to be a polymerise chain reaction, PCR, test? What is the DAA saying on the options it has looked at? Will the Minister make a decision, when will it be made and when is the regime going to be introduced?

On the aviation task force, I first wish to thank its members sincerely. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and I met them in one of our first engagements after having been appointed as Ministers. Many of those recommendations have already been implemented, including grants, low-cost loans, a waiver on commercial rates, deferred tax liabilities, the temporary wage subsidy scheme and the employment wage subsidy scheme, which is now going to be extended until April 2021. These are all measures that are and will be availed of by the aviation industry. Although members can agree that the Government acted very quickly at the start of this crisis, it has been an evolving one. We had hoped that we would be out of it in a number of weeks and certainly a few months but now we are looking at a situation where the outlook is that 2023 or 2024 will be the point at which passenger numbers recover. Within that context, and in the knowledge that this is an absolutely critical industry for Ireland as an island nation - I do not have to tell members, as I am speaking to the converted - the committee can be assured that as members of the Government, we are looking at everything to try to support this industry to ensure that we maintain that international connectivity which is critical for Ireland. We are considering other supports for all of our airports, both regional and State airports, which are critical.

On testing, and the Minister, Deputy Ryan, has already outlined it here, the DAA, which will be appearing before the committee shortly, are engaging in work to look at testing and the different types that will be valid and recognised both here at national level by our own Department of Health and internationally. The PCR testing is the gold standard. It is recognised as being the most efficient and credible test regime extant. I highlighted the need within the aviation sector, which is looking for a more rapid test. That is very understandable when one looks at aviation and passengers wanting to travel. There is this balance between public health and ensuring that whatever regime we do put in place-----

We are aware of that.

-----is robust.

I do not think any Deputy here would want to compromise our own health system. These are the issues we are trying to grapple with and I can assure the Deputy -----

We are aware of the issues. When will a decision be made?

A decision at European level is due on 13 October, as myself and the Minister, Deputy Ryan, have highlighted. That is why -----

When can we expect the testing regime in Ireland?

If I can just answer the question.

I have asked it three times, in fairness.

That is why the DAA and the Departments of Health and Transport are trying to find a regime that is workable and that is validated. We are also working with the health experts but the Deputy can be assured that every effort is happening at Government level to ensure we maintain that connectivity.

Is there a date when a testing regime will be introduced in Ireland?

We have to work at a European level. That council meeting-----

Then there is not a date.

October is the date, at a European level. We are an island nation. We cannot work as one country. We must work along a European approach. We have stated that we would work broadly in line with that European approach. We have to work with our EU colleagues. I assure the Deputy that in the meantime we are working at a cross-governmental level to ensure we have supports in place for aviation and we have that connectivity. We are facing very uncertain times. The country is at level 3 now, and the advice to people nationally is they should not to travel outside their county. We must be realistic about where we stand at a health level. We are very cognisant of foreign direct investment, tourism and ensuring we have an open economy as we did before Covid. That is at the heart of what we are doing at Government level.

We are now at the Fine Gael slot, which I will share with Senator Buttimer.

I welcome the Minister and the Minister of State and thank them for being here. I ask that both give serious consideration to reconvening the aviation task force recovery committee. I note their answers but I would say to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, that we support aviation and want to get travel back safely.

Connectivity from Cork Airport is critical in the context of both Heathrow and Amsterdam. I hope the Minister and the Minister of State will consider route support. I have a direct question on Cork Airport being admitted to the regional airports capital and operating expenditure funding scheme. Cork has received no direct State funding to date. I ask the Minister and the Minister of State to commit to that this morning. Cork Airport requires access to regional airport operating and capital expenditure funding. It is the fasting growing airport in the country and the second biggest airport.

On the green and red lists, I fully understand the state of flux. The Minister is correct that the UK Government has changed its advice on travel again this morning. Some 1.5% of all traffic is on the green list, which means that 98% of our traffic is quarantined and an effective border has been erected. I want the aviation task force to come back to take a holistic approach to aviation. It is not about pitting Cork versus Dublin versus Shannon or "us versus you".

Will the Minister and Minister of State commit to meeting with the airlines which are also critical to us in the context of supporting the base operations in the case of Cork, with Ryanair and Aer Lingus, and I am sure Shannon too? I thank them for their commitment. I know the Minister of State has already been in Cork and I thank her for that.

The green list is not working because just about every country we are connected to is outside the parameters of what would apply. Even the much higher parameters which we applied on 8 September, which were multiples of what had been applied early in July, are now no longer valid. It is not working and we have to change our approach. The mechanism in place is a two-week restriction of movement, to use the right term. It is not quarantine and we should be careful on that. Many countries have much stricter rules around quarantining whereas our system involves a restriction of movement akin to what we as a people did in March and April, when it was possible to go to the shop but contacts with other people were really reduced and there was a limited geographical area. That is very different from other countries, including the UK. It is not working because it is not a controlled system, to my mind. We do not have clear data on what sorts of protections it is giving and how people are applying it. It is appropriate for us to change the system to look at some of the examples working in other countries, such as Germany where they look for a test result in advance of travel and in the absence of such, there must be a test result on arrival in order to break out of its stricter quarantine system. We must talk and work with our health authorities and respect their mandate and requirement to ensure that whatever we put in place does not jeopardise the other health measures we are taking as a country. It is a difficult process because the evidence around what is working on this virus keeps changing. That is one reason it has been difficult to nail down the right approach over the last three months.

One thing we commit to doing is to continue talking with the airlines and airports to get their views. The Government always does this because the country works best on a partnership basis. Many of the airports and airlines have done good work in looking at the options to see what sort of testing system might work and where we might access that. That sort of collaboration and co-operation will define what we do. That will include working with airports to see if specific support mechanisms are needed. It would not be right for us to ignore European law and try to do individual route supports unless there was a case where there was not a range of services available and we were seeing a significant fall in the availability of connected routes. In those circumstances, that would be examined as an option, but it does not apply now. If it applies in the future due to a dramatic loss of connectivity, of course we will look at specific route supports. In that case there would be an essential strategic need to maintain them for economic purposes.

What about the inclusion of Cork in the capital and operating expenditure funding?

The whole aviation sector is looking for certainty. It is looking to the Minister to answer that question. I was encouraged when the Taoiseach said that he would broadly embrace the EU Commission proposal. Today is an opportunity for the Minister for Transport to say whether the European Commission will adopt this in seven days' time. I was encouraged by the Minister's remarks in The Business Post at the weekend that he might adopt it even if it is not agreed then. Can the Minister give clarity and certainty today? I am from County Clare. Shannon Airport is on its knees. It supports 46,000 jobs, directly or indirectly. There are little or no flights in and out of the airport. Ryanair has said it will pull its winter itinerary out of Shannon and that it will do the same from Cork. I do not take that threat lightly. We will not have an aviation industry if we dally any longer on this. Will we go into this or not?

We have also been working with the Minister for Foreign Affairs on this matter, which will be decided at the General Affairs Council on 13 October. The Department of Foreign Affairs has a key role. Obviously, Deputy Coveney is the Minister who will attend. It seems clear from our soundings that there will be a European agreement, largely on the mechanisms of data collection and sharing, the recognition of dual standards and the definitions for green, amber, red and grey colour-coding. We expect that there will be an agreement, but nothing is certain. It seems unlikely at this stage that the Council will recommend the exact mechanisms that states will apply to the management of each particular colour-coding. The Council is likely to decide, on the basis of subsidiarity, to leave it to individual countries. From our perspective, it is unlikely that there will be Europe-wide agreement on the exact testing or other mechanisms that will be applied to enforce those codes. It would be a significant step in the right direction.

We will seek to implement our standards to apply those codes. As for whether they will be directly delivered on 13 October, I do not believe that will be possible because it would not be viable to get the necessary testing regime in place within a week. What we want to do is to give certainty to the aviation industry as to the approach we will take and to work with it, because it will have a role in supporting and managing this, so that there is a clear timeline and a clear protocol that allows it to plan its operations.

That can take time, although some mechanisms are in place in respect of the way the passenger log is used. That could be extended to manage some of the other protocols for how we test and follow passengers as needs be. It is critical that we first get EU-wide agreement on the broad approach and, within that context, agreement with the health authorities here and with other governments, including the UK Government. It is a key player because the number of passengers travelling to and from the UK on ferries and by air means it will take us a period to put the enforcement measures in place. We have to be straight about that.

I welcome the Minister, the Minister of State and the people from the aviation industry to the meeting. The aviation industry is responsible for the employment of about 40,000 people directly in our economy and supports up to 140,000 jobs as a whole. I am very concerned because at Cork Airport, which is in my county, there has been a 90% reduction in passenger traffic and the airport is losing about €20 million a year.

The Department worked to create a task force report for aviation recovery, which had 12 recommendations. One recommendation was about providing a direct stimulus package to the airports, including Cork Airport. If we want to save our airports, it is absolutely critical to put that in place and to do so before the budget. Both the Minister and the Minister of State are in the Cabinet room, given their respective roles as a senior Minister and as a super junior Minister. Both of them should use this opportunity before the budget to meet officials in the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to try to secure additional funding for the aviation sector and our airports. We cannot afford, from the perspective of connectivity with our European neighbours and further afield, to lose any routes unnecessarily because of a lack of action from the Government.

I, along with Senator Buttimer, attended the meeting at Cork Airport held by Mrs. McCarthy and, from Ryanair, Mr. Wilson. They gave us a chilling account of where the sector is. They deserve to be listened to today, although I accept there is much to be said. I strongly encourage the Minister to take action immediately and to implement the 12 recommendations in the report as soon as possible. From my understanding, we are behind some of our European colleagues in regard to our action to save the aviation sector, an incredibly important part of our economy. To put it in perspective, if 1,000 jobs were lost at any one facility or factory, there would be a major public outcry. This is a sector that directly employed 40,000 people before Covid-19 hit, whereas now there is a serious level of unemployment. A very strong stimulus package is needed to try to get the sector to recover.

I too visited Cork Airport and met the officials there. As Deputy O'Connor rightly said, our regional and State airports throughout Ireland, not just Cork Airport, are under severe financial pressure. While Cork Airport and Shannon Airport are not under the regional airports programme, their commercial status means there is certainly a case to be made for further measures. The Minister and I have both emphasised the importance of maintaining that connectivity throughout the island.

As for the aviation task force, as I stated earlier some of those measures have been implemented, many of which are benefiting employees within the aviation sector, from the employment wage subsidy scheme to the pandemic unemployment payment. They were part of the initial support package at the start of the pandemic but we are now in a new phase, as we have recognised. As part of the budgetary deliberations, the recommendations of the aviation task force will be considered in that context. We cannot talk about the budget during this meeting but the Deputy can be assured we are very concerned about the aviation sector at all our airports and about those jobs and families that this is directly affecting, not only at Cork Airport but in the wider region, where it has a spin-off effect. The same is true at Shannon Airport for the mid-west region.

We are acutely aware of this and, as part of that, a few things are happening at the moment, such as trying to get a robust and workable testing regime. As the Minister noted, it will take time to roll that out, but it is important we give that certainty to the aviation industry in respect of our direction of travel and of our commitment to ensuring that the industry will be supported. When, hopefully, there is a vaccine and life can get back to normal, and there is confidence again to fly, the industry will be ready to reboot and grow.

I acknowledge that the Minister and the Minister of State cannot do this alone, as everyone in the room and further afield understands. Nevertheless, I have one simple request. I accept that Ministers cannot breach Cabinet confidentiality in regard to what has been discussed since the report was published, but it merits significant discussion at the Cabinet table prior to the budget, if possible. Budget 2021 will be published soon and there will be an opportunity to engage with both Ministers with responsibility for it. A direct stimulus package for the airports should be a key part of that. We know that in 2021, Covid will not be going anywhere.

I welcome the work that the Government is doing on contact tracing. It will be interesting to see what some of the representatives of the aviation industry have to say in that regard.

The Minister will be aware that of the passengers who pass through City of Derry Airport, approximately 40% are residents of Donegal. I am aware of previous conversations between the Minister, the Minister of State and the airport, and I am sure he will be acutely aware of the Government's commitment, under New Decade, New Approach, to possibly resourcing and helping to finance the airport. I am conscious that everyone is under pressure at the moment, but given that New Decade, New Approach is an international document signed by the Irish and British Governments, has there been direct engagement with City of Derry Airport? If not, why not? I strongly urge the Minister to come to the north west and City of Derry Airport to meet the members and look at a future development in the north west.

I have had a number of meetings with the Minister of Infrastructure, Nichola Mallon, in the North. As it happens, this afternoon there will be a North-South Ministerial Council meeting, at which this issue will be raised. I do not want to discuss the communiqué before it is released later this afternoon but it will refer to the issue. Having read the briefing documents earlier, I do not believe it is proposed to include City of Derry Airport as a regional airport, but it will be discussed. Ms Mallon will be raising it and I imagine her position will be similar to that raised by the Senator. It is not formally agreed in the communiqué, from what I can recall from my reading of it, that we would take such an approach.

There will, however, be agreement that we will look at the likes of high-speed rail connectivity, including to Derry and the north west, and that connectivity is very important, not just for the people of Derry but also of Donegal.

Health is the first consideration nowadays but we must accept we are an island nation and we need a connection to the rest of the world. We cannot operate without a viable airport infrastructure, and that is not to mention the numbers of people employed, directly or indirectly, by the industry and the supports we need to ensure for families affected.

My notion is that agreement will be reached on the general practicalities of how this European-wide traffic light system will work by 13 October, but the mechanisms will be left to individual states. I would like to think there will be a timeline on implementing that. I welcome that the Minister has conversations with the airports and airlines on testing. I would like to think that he had already looked into some options, even if it will not be PCR. I accept the difficulties with antigen testing. If alternatives can be used that have been validated, we need to consider the practicalities of operating a system without impacting on the test, trace and isolate capacity that we are operating in the rest of society. I accept the difficulties, particularly given the health ramifications we are dealing with this week.

Regarding the supports, I welcome the promises accepting the necessity of maintaining this infrastructure. There are some concerns relating to European law. As has been done across Europe, I hope derogations will be enacted where necessary, specific to Covid-19 and specific to the survival of necessary industries.

The science of how we test for this virus and how it operates is evolving. There is not an ideological position on one form of testing versus another. Each has advantages and disadvantages. During the week, I met some of our health officials to discuss the potential benefits of antigen testing in a variety of contexts and not just related to travel. It has the advantage that it can be very quick and relatively simple. It is not intrusive and has a fast 15-minute turnaround potentially. It may give false negatives in cases where someone might have the virus but is not symptomatic and does not have a significant viral load. In those cases, the testing may not pick it up in every instance. In those circumstances, it gives a false sense of optimism. A person might walk out and go straight to a party leading to concern over cluster spreading.

That is not to say there may not be advances and real benefits from the use of antigen testing. It could be done to complement other tests or using different timelines that might make it an effective mechanism. I would like to give details because this is important. As the Minister of State said, based on information from the ECDC and the WHO as well as our authorities, it may not yet be at the stage to give us real security in the international travel arena. If the international health authorities advise it can be used in this way, we should certainly use it.

As the Minister of State said, PCR has real benefits in having 98% or 99% accuracy. The difficulty is that it may give a significant number of false positives. It may pick up trace residue of the virus from someone who had the disease many months previously. It is also much more expensive, although that seems to vary. Some European countries appear to have been able to get the cost down to something like €60 for a test; in other jurisdictions, it seems to be more expensive. The cost seems to vary with the turnaround time for the test. It is possible to get a rapid response test. In our health system we save that for the most acute emergency health purposes, and we do not want to use that in the aviation area. That also continues to evolve. The capability is unclear. The chief executive officer of the HSE, Paul Reid, has publicly stated that there is not easy access internationally to additional PCR testing. We have been trying to find out if there is access and if it is certified. We then need to establish if we can get access to it and where we might deploy it. Based on what our health authorities say and what we hear from the ECDC and WHO, it is the preferred testing approach.

Other testing systems, including RT-LAMP testing systems and others, are evolving and may have benefits in offering high accuracy and rapid turnaround times. We do not rule out any application of these. It may only apply, or we might only want it to apply to a small number of passengers. My preference would be to use a system where testing is concentrated on those with high risk. We should scientifically target applying it in areas where there is a risk rather than necessarily having every passenger tested, which would be very expensive, time consuming and impractical in many ways.

It could take testing capacity away from where we need it, which is in our domestic health-management systems. The changing landscape around that single issue, which is only one of the issues we need to address, is why this country along with others has had difficulty in getting it nailed down. We want to have clarity on that. With our health authorities and others, I am seeking to achieve that. At the same time, they would adopt a common European approach. It will take time to install whatever protocol or mechanism to be put in place.

Is the Minister saying there will be a serious time delay?

Not serious.

People ask if Cabinet is discussing this. It happens at every single meeting. The areas having the most difficult time at present are the hospitality, tourism, arts and travel sectors. The focus of Government attention is on sectors hardest hit, including aviation, travel and all the connected industries. There is no lack of will in government, which is taking a collective Cabinet approach to this. If it was possible to click the fingers and have an immediate response, we would have done it. We need to find one that satisfies the health system as well as our interest in getting these hardest hit sectors out of difficulty, but we will.

I bring this part of our meeting to a conclusion. I thank the Minister of State and the Minister. We will draft a letter to them on the issues we have discussed today, and we hope they will include that in preparing their plans for the sector.

Sitting suspended at 12.28 p.m. and resumed at 12.33 p.m.