Issues Affecting the Aviation Sector: Discussion (Resumed)

Apologies have been received from Senator Jerry Buttimer. This session deals with matters affecting the aviation sector. I welcome to today's meeting the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and his officials. We thank him for returning.

All witnesses are again reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. If the witnesses' statements are potentially defamatory, therefore, in respect of an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with all such directions.

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. The Minister may now make his opening statement.

I am joined by officials, Ms Andrea Lennon and Ms Nicola Hayes. I thank the committee for the opportunity to come back to speak further about the impact of Covid-19 on Irish aviation. I know the committee has dedicated a lot of its time and energy in the past month to raise and examine the key issues for aviation, with a focus on what needs to be done. I am very glad to receive its further conclusions and recommendations from this work.

I have no doubt we all share a desire to reach a point where international air travel can resume and where the industry can begin to plan and build towards a stable and sustainable recovery. We all agree that aviation is an important sector because of the significant number of jobs involved but it is also a critical enabler of the rest of the economy, and we will need it back to help us recover any lost ground from the past eight or nine months.

There is no question that the impact on the aviation industry, on the travel industry and on the domestic tourism industry in Ireland and across Europe and the world for that matter has been catastrophic and unprecedented. I know the committee has heard from the airlines, the airports and those who contributed to the aviation task force, as well as the European Commission and many others. I am sure this will have given the committee a good sense of the myriad problems and the scale of the challenges.

I have also engaged regularly with all of these key stakeholders since my appointment in the summer. We all want the same thing. We want to have fewer restrictions on international travel, safe travel, and notwithstanding the very serious upturn on Covid-19 cases across Europe in recent weeks, we need to be preparing the ground now for when that improves and for a time when it makes sense to have people moving around more freely again.

I am very concerned about the loss of strategic connectivity. The suspension of services at Shannon and Cork during November is in direct response to a collapse in forward bookings on the routes concerned, primarily due to ongoing uncertainty concerning the spread of Covid-19 across Europe and the necessary restrictions being imposed in several jurisdictions. In that respect it is understandable, even if very regrettable, that the airlines, operating on a commercial basis, have to judge how best to manage service provision and reduce costs. The coronavirus has led to a sharp reduction in air travel, not just in Ireland but across Europe and globally.

Since I spoke with members in early October, the Government has agreed to develop a framework around the EU traffic light system, which was adopted at EU level on 13 October. As a start, changes for green regions have already been made, which means that people arriving into Ireland from EU green regions do not have to restrict their movement for 14 days. All other passengers must continue to restrict their movements for 14 days unless they are exempted essential workers. The Government will also align with the updated list of exempted categories of traveller with essential function or need within the EU recommendation.

The Government has also agreed that from midnight on 8 November, the requirement for those arriving from orange locations to restrict their movements can be waived if they have a negative Covid-19 PCR test result up to three days before arrival. The current requirement to restrict movement for 14 days following arrival from a red region remains but the Government agrees that, as soon as practicable, this can be waived following a negative result from an approved PCR Covid-19 test taken five days after arrival, with travellers restricting movements until then. Children under 6 are to be exempt from testing requirements. All arrivals must abide by provisions of the living with Covid plan, currently at level 5.

A senior cross-departmental technical working group will report to the Government on 10 November with a plan to establish approved Covid-19 tests for international arrivals, taking into consideration testing options, standards, and operational implementation. Any such tests should not interfere with HSE testing capacity.

The Government has already made a significant level of Exchequer support available for the aviation sector. Many companies continue to benefit from the economy-wide support measures that the Government put in place right from the very beginning of the pandemic. Airlines and airports are availing of wage subsidies, waivers of commercial rates and deferred tax liabilities.

In budget 2021, the Government made provision for €10 million for Cork and Shannon airports while confirming a commitment of €21 million to the continuation of the regional airports programme to support Knock, Kerry and Donegal airports. In the context of the forthcoming national economic plan, the Government will consider further measures to support the industry to ensure that the core capability of the industry is preserved so that it can recover quickly to support the wider economic recovery when circumstances allow.

I know there is frustration at industry level felt by workers and management and a perception among the airlines and airports that more needs to be done to help them. I agree that more can be done and more is being done. I am happy to engage on that with this committee and see if we can find common ground on a way forward.

As we have limited time I must restrict people initially to three minutes. If time remains, we can come back to members.

I am fairly sure the Minister has a good idea of what the recommendations and conclusions will be arising from the deliberations of the committee from these hearings. I am sure he has followed them and is quite aware of the challenges for the aviation sector.

The Minister outlined testing criteria. When will that testing be introduced? He mentioned the requirements on travellers coming from red countries so will he reiterate them? What testing capacity exists for people to avail of this? I know there is private testing capacity but it is not all PCR. Some of it is loop-mediated isothermal amplification, LAMP, molecular testing. Where can people avail of those approved PCR tests?

I look forward to the committee's report. This area will continue to change and evolve as the virus is continuing to evolve, along with the impact and responses to it with respect to testing and regulations. We will have to continue to be flexible and look at how arrangements change while following best international practice as best we can. It is about listening to the health advice. Health and safety comes first but we must retain our connectivity as an island and we must ensure the economic strength coming from connectivity is retained. How we match the two needs of protecting lives and livelihoods continues to evolve.

I watched with interest the contributions of Dr. Tony Holohan, Dr. Cillian de Gascun and the principal officer from the Department of Health in yesterday's committee deliberations. I agree with much of the information they shared with the committee, and they have already shared that with the Government on an ongoing basis. The Government has made a decision that follows the earlier decision to put no restrictions on passengers coming from green list countries and from this Sunday night, 8 November, we will have a provision whereby a person coming from an amber list country - there are two or three regions in the EU - will have other requirements relating to the person getting a test of his or her own volition in the region.

As Dr. Holohan stated yesterday, there is a range of new testing technologies being developed, including antigen and LAMP testing, but the World Health Organization advice for the moment on international air travel is to use PCR testing as the most appropriate. Other countries have done this but methods continue to change.

As I stated, Germany employed a similar method until recently. A test prior to departure was acceptable to exempt travellers from the need to restrict their movements. The further application of such a testing regime in this country requires first that we can be certain that there is testing capacity such that the regime would not infringe on the ability of the HSE to use PCR testing in its management of the disease. I am confident that will be done quite quickly. The Dublin Airport Authority in particular has done a significant amount of work in that regard. It indicated to me that it has approached up to 20 providers that may be able to deliver those services. I expect the private sector to provide that service. It may be provided by a variety of sources, including, potentially, in airports. If such tests are available from the private market, it may be beneficial to have them carried out at locations other than airports in order that people do not have to make an extra journey. All of this is being done in an effort to make travel safer and improve public health outcomes. People are currently coming into the country without any such testing being in place. If it enhances our public health screening effectively, that will be one of the benefits. If it leads to a reduction in or waiving of the restrictions that come with such travel, that may see a return to travel for essential work in a way that benefits the economy as well as protecting public health.

The Minister referred to the proposal that from 8 November travellers from orange countries will not have to restrict their movements if they produce a negative Covid test three days prior to arrival. When did the Government make that decision? On the red countries, the Minister is basically stating that the requirement on travellers to restrict their movements for 14 days could be waived if they isolate for five days on arrival and then have a negative result. He stated that the cross-departmental group will report by 10 November with a plan in respect of testing. In that context, and following on from the comments of Dr. Holohan to the committee yesterday, does the Minister expect people to be able to fly home to Ireland at Christmas?

On the Chairman's final question, I reiterate what Dr. Holohan stated yesterday. It is far too early to be making statements in that regard. We are into the second week of level 5 restrictions. As Dr. Holohan stated, we are moving in quite a hopeful direction in terms of the level of incidence, but we will have to wait and see how that progresses. We must also wait and see what happens in other jurisdictions. A similar reduction in numbers has not occurred in the main destinations from which, historically, passengers travel to Ireland, such as the US, the UK and countries in mainland Europe. I agree with Dr. Holohan that it is a matter for further review later on this month. Any attempt to second guess that in advance would not be appropriate.

When does the Minister expect the testing system to be in place for red regions? He stated that the current requirement to restrict movement for 14 days following arrival from a red region remains, but the Government agrees that as soon as practicable, that can be waived following a negative result from an approved Covid-19 test taken five days after arrival. He further stated that the cross-departmental technical group has to come back with a plan to implement a testing system by 10 November. When does the Minister anticipate that the testing system will be in place for red countries?

It will be in place within a short number of weeks. As I stated, it will be operated on a voluntary basis, that is, people will have to opt in. It is not that every single passenger will have to do that.

It will be voluntary, not compulsory.

It will be voluntary. It is designed-----

How will that work? How can one have a scheme that is seeking to reduce risk if it is left up to passengers to decide whether they wish to take a test?

Our current approach involves looking for passengers to comply with the regulations. The advice is clear in terms of passengers currently coming in restricting their movements. We are doing that on the basis of seeking public support in the compliance------

The Minister is saying that it is up to persons coming from red countries to decide whether to take a test. Is he saying that they cannot come from such countries without taking the test?

No, we are saying it is an option. The system we will operate will be very similar to what the German and UK Governments are seeking to introduce. The health authorities indicated to me that if we are to introduce a testing system, such an approach would involve passengers being tested five days after arrival. My understanding of the health advice is that passengers would restrict their movements for those five days. The chance of persons being asymptomatic in the early stages would be reduced by the five-day delay. Although testing at that point does not provide 100% certainty, as Dr. Holohan stated yesterday, it offers a significantly improved------

I have a limited amount of time. If there is a Covid testing system in place for passengers coming from orange or red countries, is the Minister stating that it will be voluntary for a person coming in from an orange country to provide a negative test from three days prior to departure? Is he stating that a person could come in from a red country and not have to go for a test after five days? How will that work in practice? How will it reduce the risk relating to people coming into Ireland?

The number of people travelling has decreased significantly. When I last appeared before the committee, approximately 15,000 people a day were coming into or leaving the country. The most recent figures show that this number has halved, approximately, as a result of the level 5 restrictions and what is happening internationally. There are a significant number of essential workers who must travel. The majority of them are coming in by aeroplane but significant numbers are still coming in by ferry. There is a significant number of essential workers. I refer to the trucks that must enter or leave the country to deliver goods, as well as other essential workers who are travelling and will continue to travel. We wish to continue that connectivity. We cannot cut ourselves off as an island. We expect and ask passengers currently coming in to restrict their movements for two weeks. The new scheme, which is similar to other schemes and based on the European Union practice, will mean that people who must undertake essential travel will have the option of not having to restrict their movements for two weeks. They would have to pay for the test. The State will not cover the cost of the test. In doing that-----

If one does not take the test, one must restrict one's movements for two weeks.

Yes. The Chairman should remember that, as Dr. Holohan and the civil servants from the Department of Health stated yesterday, our system is based on public support for compliance. A friend of mine told me about the travel restrictions in China, New Zealand and other countries that have a forced quarantine system whereby one is put in a hotel on arrival and is obliged to remain there for two weeks and get tested on a regular basis. We do not have that system in place. It would be very difficult to implement such a system on this island because, obviously, there is the Border with Northern Ireland and we will not restrict movement through that sort of border control. Our system is based on compliance. We are seeking to increase the level of screening. Effectively, there is no such screening in place for travellers. We are seeking to make travel safer and to give people structures within which they can check whether they can avail of those tests which would give them some reassurance and improve the public health outcome.

I welcome the Minister. The best-case predictions for a recovery in air passenger activity seem to suggest that it will take until 2023 or 2024 to get back to 2019 levels. If that is borne out, I would have very serious concerns regarding the future viability of airports such as Shannon. The Minister indicated that the Government can and will do more. I ask him to expand on that and give some understanding of the kind of intervention measures that would give confidence not just to the airport management and the people who work there, but also to the wider region that depends so much on connectivity into the west and mid-west of Ireland for the survival of businesses, particularly those in the tourism and hospitality sector.

I agree with the Senator. None of us knows how this virus will progress or the effect it will have on the wider economy and on international travel. I do, however, know for certain that Shannon Airport is of critical importance for the people working in the industry. Moreover, surrounding industries, nearby industrial estates, the wider Limerick region and, indeed, the region as a whole depend on and benefit from international connectivity. The tourism industry is exactly the kind of employer we want. The industry is rich in jobs right across the country and particularly in rural Ireland. From the experience of my own working life, I know that Shannon Airport is very important for the tourism industry in the west, south west and mid-west. That is why it is critical that we retain our capability and connectivity as a country with regard to international connections.

We introduced further interim measures in the budget. Shannon Airport was in receipt of funding earlier in the year and has been in receipt of ongoing funding through the employment wage subsidy scheme and other supports but we provided additional capital funding in the budget and signalled that, in all likelihood, we would have to provide additional supports. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, said that the Covid fund which was, in a sense, held back in the budget to allow for the provision of any additional supports that may be required as a result of the pandemic-----

I am sorry, but may I ask the Minister a specific question because I know time is running short? Has consideration been given to funding airlines to service key routes to important destinations which might otherwise not be profitable to recognise their importance to the region, although demand is low? I refer particularly to direct access to London Heathrow and the east coast of the United States, principally New York and Boston. The Minister will know that there is a considerable amount of foreign investment from American companies in the mid-west. It is really important that their executives have access to the area.

That is one of the options at which we have been looking. As I have said, this whole area keeps changing. The application of such an approach will depend, to a certain extent, on European rules on state aid. We are looking at that. We are also looking at whether operating expenditure arrangements in airports could be supported and whether further capital supports could be provided. We are also looking at whether, in supporting airports, they could in turn support and help the airlines that use them. The Government has not made a final decision in that regard. We are looking at all options. I will not rule out any. We will work with the airlines and airports to achieve the best balance we can.

In my discussions with the airlines, what they have sought more than anything else is a public understanding that they have good safety protocols in place, which they do. We also have the sort of mechanisms I have discussed here, so provision will still be made for essential workers and people who have to travel in a safe way and while minimising risk. That is the best way to retain services. At the moment, in the midst of level 5 restrictions and at the height of the second wave in Europe, the numbers are right down, as I have said. I very much take on board what Dr. Holohan and others said yesterday, which is that we will have to be careful as we come out of level 5 restrictions if contagion levels are still high in other countries. We also have to start planning for the short to medium term, in which there will a return to some sort of normality and flying will be allowed because we need that connectivity. In my discussions with the airlines, more than anything else, this is what they see as critical for the retention of services and the planning of future services. That is why it is important to get the other elements right.

I thank the Minister.

I see that, at this point, we have what looks like it will be a framework. I assume this will be put into some straightforward communication setting in order that it can be widely distributed to all relevant stakeholders. We have all seen the difficulty. It looks like the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, EASA, and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC, are putting together a testing framework. Have we had a discussion with those bodies on our proposals? Will they be in keeping with such a framework? We are looking at this with a view to the private sector delivering. It is a matter of people coming here, so I assume it is their responsibility on some level. I imagine we have spoken to airlines about delivering this. Have we looked at anything as regards what we would operate for people leaving here, while accepting that we are in a bad situation and that non-essential travel does not make great sense at this point?

My understanding is that the airlines themselves have been looking at these matters. Aer Lingus is, for example, part of IAG and has, as I understand it, been doing a lot of work with its partners on transatlantic routes with regard to passport and other arrangements. It has also been looking at the different testing arrangements that might be put in place. The Dublin Airport Authority has been doing significant work here in supporting the introduction of passenger forms and call centres and in negotiating with potential providers of polymerase chain reaction, PCR, testing capability. It has been proactive in that regard. That makes sense because, if we are to introduce testing facilities at airports - which remains an "if" because there are other locations where it could be carried out given the structures being put in place - they will use the airports' facilities rather than those of the airlines. We listen to what the ECDC and the World Health Organization are saying. One of the reasons we went with the common European approach, which is common in the sense that it describes and sets out protocols for the green, amber and red classifications, is that it is left to national jurisdictions to decide what testing system to use.

I accept that but they are looking at some sort of framework for testing across the board. I would like to think our proposals are in keeping with that. Are we introducing anything else as part of the suite of measures? We have already said that there are difficulties with the passenger locator forms at times. The compliance rate among people coming into the country was, at one point, 18%. When we are in a different place, we will need a better tracing operation.

To be clear, the passenger contact form is not the same as contact tracing. It includes a mechanism to remind those coming from green countries of the basic health protocols here and to allow for people to be texted or otherwise contacted to see whether people are at the location they have said they would be. It is not part of the Department of Foreign Affairs contact tracing arrangement, which is similar to the HSE system.

If people are to voluntarily enter into this then we need some way to maintain contact with those who do not avail of the service, assuming that some element of restriction is to be maintained.

We will amend the forms so that those who qualify under the European exemptions list or who are coming from an amber country can indicate that they are availing of the right to remove themselves from the restrictions on travel. As I said, officials yesterday made the point that our system is not as restrictive as those in other jurisdictions. We are not-----

We are not policing it.

As a result of geography with regard to the Border, we do not have a system in place under which we could compel, control or completely restrict someone's movements. It must be done on the basis of voluntary compliance, as are the vast majority of the health measures introduced in respect of Covid. One of our successes as a country has been public support and compliance in respect of those measures.

It is abundantly clear that we need a strong and coherent plan for aviation with regard to the short-term challenges, which are very severe. We have many hearings in this committee over recent weeks, particularly with regard to Shannon Airport.

It is abundantly clear that we need state aid for operational and capital expenditure in order to guarantee strategic routes and provide support for Shannon Airport. The economic plan that will be published in the coming weeks presents an opportunity to underpin those strategic routes, particularly the Heathrow, Boston and New York services. Those three services are operated by Aer Lingus and the Minister must step in and underpin them because we must have that global connectivity which is vital for Shannon airport and for business and tourism in the region. The Minister must make provision in the economic plan to provide that vital support. A new chairperson of the board must be appointed and there must be a change in aviation policy such that there is a recognition of Shannon Airport as a driver of economic activity in the region. I ask the Minister to respond to those specific points.

I agree with the Deputy on the great importance of Shannon Airport. I have some figures here to demonstrate what I meant earlier when I spoke about additional support. Up to 30 September, the value of the employee wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, or the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, and the deferred VAT payments and commercial rates waiver to Shannon Airport was €4.9 million. Earlier in June, €6.1 million was provided as an emergency grant measure to the airport to complete essential safety and security projects. A number of Deputies on this committee were instrumental in getting the Government to support Shannon Heritage to keep Bunratty Castle and Folk Park and King John's Castle open. I think there is-----

We will be coming back to the Minister on that because we need to fund that essential park from January to June of next year. I appeal to the Minister to try to secure the additional money to make sure it is operational.

I am just flagging the fact that the Government was very attentive to what committee members were saying about the various strategic interests around Shannon Airport. On the appointment of a chairman, that process is under way and will conclude shortly.

Is there a shortlist of candidates? Did many candidates-----

The Public Appointments Service, PAS, is managing the process now. The system has changed since I was last a Minister. Previously, Ministers were very involved in the process but increasingly it is the responsibility of the PAS. I understand that the process is well advanced and I presume nominees will be presented to Government soon and I will make a decision very quickly. Whoever takes over as chairman is facing a real challenge, particularly if Senator Dooley is correct and the virus continues to have an impact for the next two to three years. That will create a very difficult environment but the airport is strategically vital for the region and the Government understands that. We will have to consider how we manage aviation policy. I do not think anybody has a rule book at the moment or a clear vision because we do not know what the virus is going to do. As soon as that becomes clear, it will be easier to understand future.

I welcome the fact that the Minister is exploring all of the options for providing operational and capital support for Shannon Airport. Will such support, including the underpinning of strategic routes, be included in the capital economic plan that will be presented shortly?

I would expect to come to some decisions on this sooner than that because the finalising of a national development plan, NDP, or an economic recovery plan will be a longer process. The decisions we make-----

The Deputy is talking about the economic plan.

Yes, but that economic plan will not necessarily be completed in the required time. I imagine we will try to have measures in place sooner than that.

I thank the Minister for his presentation to the committee. The first issue I wish to discuss is Cork Airport. Obviously Covid-19 has had a very negative impact on the whole Cork region, with very few passengers coming in through the airport. In that context, there is an opportunity cost for the Department in not investing in capital infrastructure in Cork Airport, particularly in the runway which needs investment. The current runway is in need of replacement. The airport is worth over €1 billion to the Munster economy and is essential for thousands of jobs in the region. As we are going through this pandemic and airline traffic levels are so low, we have a chance to make a once in a generation investment in repairing and upgrading the runway.

Colleagues have made similar points. The last time there was investment in the runway in Cork was thirty-odd years ago. Obviously we must continue to invest in infrastructure to make sure that it is up to date and safe. To go back to what I said earlier, it is my expectation that we will decide on these matters relatively quickly. That sort of project is one which would fit into an NDP review. It would not provide immediate support in the context of the crisis in aviation but is more of a long-term, strategic issue for the airport. That sort of project would fit into an NDP review rather than the more immediate issue of providing support for the airport. I met representatives of some of the trade unions at Cork Airport on Friday last and they made the very clear case that Cork Airport is in real difficulty. Traffic is down by 76% compared with the same period last year and passenger numbers are down from approximately 2.6 million in 2019 to an anticipated 600,000 this year. My understanding is that only KLM and Aer Lingus are currently flying in and out of the airport.

Yes. I apologise for interrupting but my time is limited. Everything the Minister has said is correct. It is quite clear that we have a chance to secure the future of the airport, increase its worth to the local economy and replace the jobs that have been lost. The Minister must take rapid action in that regard.

My final point is that we need to see more being done at a European level with regard to investigating the use of antigen testing. The Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Holohan, and Dr. Cillian De Gascun appeared before an Oireachtas committee yesterday and said that the research into antigen testing was not conclusive enough to allow organisations like NPHET or the WHO to support or endorse its use in airports. I ask the Minister to raise this at the next meeting of EU transport ministers. I am not sure when the next meeting is scheduled but I am aware that there was an informal meeting in October. We need to see a multilateral approach to this issue because Ireland cannot do this on its own. Everyone at this meeting agrees that we need to investigate this but unless there is a multilateral, Europe-wide approach to antigen testing, it will not be possible to implement it. As far as I am aware, there has been very little discussion of this issue among European transport ministers. Given the importance of the aviation sector to our economy, I urge the Minister to seize the opportunity to raise this matter with his European counterparts.

I will respond quickly to that and back up what Dr. De Gascun said yesterday. It is important that our health officials are fully confident that the use of antigen testing does not pose a risk to public health. The advice for the moment is that it is not safe but that advice is subject to change. Indeed, we should be flexible and open to change when evidence allows. As I understand it, antigen testing was introduced in Italy for internal flights and the current advice from international health organisations and from NPHET is that it is not appropriate for international air travel. However, we may see it used for screening at-risk groups in nursing homes, meat factories and so on. If at any stage it is deemed appropriate for international air travel screening, I would love to see it introduced but we cannot do that against health advice.

My very last point-----

I ask the Deputy to be quick because other members want to contribute.

I appreciate that. Antigen testing needs to be investigated at a European level. Ireland cannot conduct the research on its own. The Minister has an opportunity to raise this matter at EU level and he should do so. The issue here is the research.

I believe the Minister should. The research is the issue here. It is not necessarily whether it is wise for NPHET to be arguing for or against it. We need more research.

I have engaged in a series of meetings at European Council, OECD and World Economic Forum levels on this issue because it is one that is faced across the world.

Deputy O'Connor raised a very good point regarding the antigen testing. I understand that Marseille airport is considering introducing it and it could be introduced in Charles de Gaulle Airport for non-internal flights as well. Some countries' airports might move ahead of everywhere else and things might get a little confused. I am taking the positives from the Minister's statement today in that we appear to be moving towards some form of testing regime, with all the caveats we have discussed. That is a positive message that should emerge from this committee and from what the Minister said. It would provide some light at the end of the tunnel for getting the aviation industry back on its feet.

However, I wish to speak on the DAA, and it is not to be parochial about it. Dalton Philips appeared before the committee and he said he had an off-the-shelf system that the DAA had worked out that was almost ready to go. Has the Minister discussed this with the DAA? I am not referring to the testing and which test is used, but the practical parts of introducing this at the airport. Planning permission will have to be sought and staff would have to be either hired or redeployed. Has the Minister discussed this with Dalton Philips in terms of allowing the DAA to begin preliminary work on that, given that the Minister said that we cannot waste this level 5 period and must make use of the time as best we can?

I have had discussions with Mr. Philips. The DAA has done a very good job by being proactive here. On the issue of whether the airport might need planning permission if we were to introduce testing facilities there, to be honest it only came to my desk in the past week. I understand that we have to consider with Fingal County Council whether the council needs to make an adjustment or whether we require an emergency measure in planning regulations. If we do, we will do it. The Government is looking at every option and will assist the DAA in whatever way it needs assistance, but it must be a system that is also approved by the health authorities.

The worst thing that could happen for the aviation sector is if people have a sense that international air travel is not safe or that we are taking risks. Whatever we do should be done in tandem with good health advice and the ECDC system. The reason we are trying to introduce the type of system on red is that it is in line with what the UK, Germany and other large European countries are doing. That mechanism allows us to see what their experience is, to look at what best practice is and what other countries are doing. We will be very supportive of the DAA in implementing similar measures here as soon as it is clear that they are safe and that they are not going to be something that three or four weeks later we will think we have lost some public confidence because of them.

At our meeting last week, the day of the Cabinet meeting, the Minister went in and said that we have to look at testing in the airport. It jarred with what we discussed here with the airlines that day, so it is good to see the Minister move this forward in what he said. That is where we want it to go. That is where the aviation industry wants to go. The airlines bemoaned a lack of communication from the Minister and his Department on that. Hopefully, from what the Minister said last week and what he is saying today, the communication with the airlines, the DAA, Shannon Group, Cork Airport and all the other airports can increase and some positive momentum can build. On the public health issue, there will always be a risk that some person with Covid-19 could come into the country by some means, through whatever testing regime or no testing regime and through a port or an airport, and spread the virus. All we can do is reduce the risk. That is what the committee has been saying. We want to support any measures that will reduce the risk to as low as possible. I believe I can speak for other members of the committee in saying that a testing regime is vital for that. I thank the Minister for his work on this.

Minister, do you support the DAA and Shannon Airport now proceeding to put in place the infrastructure for testing?

Yes, absolutely. However, as I said, it might not be the only location.

That is fine.

If somebody is coming here for five days, the person may not have to go to the airport.

That will be welcome news to the airports. They are now getting the green light from the Minister that they can proceed. Assistance is required to ensure there are no planning issues, so we will be ready when matters improve with regard to red and orange. Our airline industry can get back into action.

As I said, it must be in conjunction with good health advice.

Absolutely. I call Deputy Lowry.

I welcome that commitment in terms of the infrastructure because it is very important to Shannon and Cork. The Minister acknowledged the necessity for connectivity for Ireland. He also acknowledged the decimation of the aviation industry. We have heard from a number of witnesses across the aviation sector of the difficulties and problems, the loss of activity, loss of jobs, fears for the future and the frustration that it has taken so long to get something moving in terms of rapid testing. I have always been of the view that we will not get the aviation sector up and running again unless we create confidence with the public. That confidence will come from a rapid testing regime, where people feel safe and feel that they have a testing system that is effective, reliable, swift and in which they get early results.

We were a little slow to sign up to the European Union green directive. The Minister in his statement outlined advances that have been made. Yesterday, the Chief Medical Officer put a damper on that and said we were working on the framework. I got the distinct impression that he was going to determine what the framework would be and the steps that would have to be taken. From the Minister's perspective as Minister for Transport and from the perspective of the Government, what are the procedural steps? What is the liaison? Who makes the decision on this? The airport authorities and the airlines have told us what they need. We have a fair idea of what is required to get the airports active again. However, in terms of the decision making process, is this a case of the Minister having to await the advice of the Chief Medical Officer? What are the steps to be taken before we get to a stage where we have a confirmed framework?

We have a confirmed framework for the green light system at present. We will have a framework for the amber system by Sunday evening, 8 November. Within a short number of weeks after that, I expect we will have a framework for the red list countries. There was a Government decision to take this approach. We listen to the advice of the health authorities, obviously. I was listening to Dr. Holohan yesterday. He was very clear when he was asked by the Chairman and others to say whether he would stop or restrict. He clearly and correctly made the point that NPHET's job is to advise and it is the Government's job to decide what regulations or systems are put in place. We are working with the health authorities because they are operating the regulatory system, the contact and capacity forms and so forth. They are a critical part of this system. We must put public health first, but the Government must balance how it can protect public health and at the same time maintain connectivity. That is why the Government must decide in the end. It is a balancing question sometimes, and that is the Government's job and role.

When listening to the CMO yesterday, many people throughout the country felt disappointed. I have been contacted by many people who wish to come home for Christmas and they are saying that it appears it is not going to happen. Would the Minister be a little more optimistic in terms of whether it is achievable to have people travel home for Christmas based on the information he has?

I agree with what he said yesterday. I do not believe we can second-guess that.


I do not believe he did either yesterday.

I do not think he did.

That is the correct approach. As I said at the end, what everybody who is travelling wants is for it to be safe and they want to know they are not contributing to the problem.

Heeding the advice in this instance makes sense.

I was in the committee meeting earlier and I had to go to the Joint Committee on Health, but I have been following most of the proceedings here. It was devastating for everyone in the mid-west and the west to hear just a week ago that Aer Lingus and Ryanair were scaling back and pulling some of their winter flights from Shannon and in the case of Aer Lingus, not resuming flights there until the summer schedule begins at the start of April, which is of serious concern. They would claim it is a commercial decision. If people are not booking and not flying, they see no point in putting aeroplanes in the sky. They would also attribute much of it to procrastination in fully implementing the traffic light system.

I have heard what the Minister already told the committee. Given that Shannon, Cork and Dublin airports have clearly indicated they have the capacity and just need ministerial approval to set up their testing at airports, why have we had the procrastination? Why was it suggested last week that this might not be in place until Christmas?

The Government decision was quite quick. The European decision was only made on 13 October and the following week we went to Cabinet with a decision and set the deadline of 8 November because we recognised it would take time to change the passenger form and ensure the other arrangements were in place. It will take slightly longer to make arrangements for the red list which is there. We are looking to ensure there is some testing capability here that does not interfere with the HSE. In truth, that exists already. If someone in this room was looking to travel to another country and wanted to get a PCR test in advance of flying, they can do it at the moment. It is quite expensive. It depends on location and the timelines. I do not expect the immediate numbers to be very large because the numbers of passengers at the moment are low.

I feel it is rather late coming together and airlines have not been able to fully plan a schedule in advance, which has certainly hampered Shannon.

One of the recommendations of the aviation task force was to look at the financing of Shannon Airport. It is in dire straits and is losing a hell of a lot of money every week. There is a gross imbalance in aviation with 155,000 passengers passing through Dublin Airport in the second quarter of this year and fewer than 100 passengers coming through Shannon at the same time. That imbalance needs to be addressed.

The aviation task force also recommended the State should provide airports with what is referred to as a common fixed sum per passenger. This is particularly needed in Shannon and Cork airports so that they are financially viable and can compete in attracting airlines. I ask the Minister to comment on some of those points. There is a significant imbalance in Ireland. If this were a boat it would be capsizing right now, but it is not, and we have a chance to put the policy right. How will the Minister implement some of those recommendations?

When responding to earlier questions, I said that we are open to looking at additional supports for Shannon and have made a series of supports available to the airport because it is so significant for the surrounding region. The fixed-sum-per-passenger mechanism might apply. We might have a waiver on landing charges or some other mechanism. It could be done through an operational expenditure support directly to the airport or further capital support. It is something on which the Government has not yet made a decision, but we will very shortly.

I agree with the Deputy that airlines make commercial decisions because the bookings are not there. The decision not to fly is made on an individual basis with hundreds of thousands of individuals deciding they should not fly at this moment in time. I do not believe it is coming from a Government restriction or from any Government messaging. It is coming from the wider environment that the public are aware of.

When will the Government bring forward these proposals for Shannon Airport?

As I said earlier when responding to Deputy O'Connor, this needs to happen in the coming weeks not months.

I am trying to bring in as many members as possible for one minute each. I call Deputy O'Rourke, followed by Deputies Ó Murchú, O'Connor and Carey.

Who approves the testing? I am conscious the Minister mentioned PCR testing. Some people will be leaving countries where the testing will not be PCR testing. Does it need to be PCR testing? The Minister said we already have the additional capacity. A company in my constituency is looking to take on 200 extra staff as reported in the media this week. Why do we not move immediately with both the orange and red list criteria? Will the regimes be in place before Christmas?

The system in this country works on a voluntary compliance basis. There is no international regulation stating what is certified and what exactly a PCR test is - although there is clear differentiation between antigen, LAMP and PCR tests. Because it is changing and because the virus has come at a certain pace and so on, it is not an area in which there is absolute off-the-shelf regulatory systems. The Department of Health and the HSE have a clear role first and foremost. We need to ensure that in the provision of any testing here it does not infringe on their testing regime. I believe that can be done. They have oversight. They need to be confident and clear that it is appropriate testing which does not interfere with their system. They have the key role in that.

Can we have the detailed instructions as quickly as possible for individuals and airlines in order that they can carry out best practice? That is similar to what my colleague was asking about what exactly an acceptable PCR test is. We also need to be absolutely clear about the specifics of the three-days-beforehand timeline. There should be no room for manoeuvre to ensure everybody is doing the right thing. I would like to see movement as quickly as possible on our red list framework.

The three-day requirement will be for people coming into the country. It is in another jurisdiction that that test-----

Will that three-day test also apply to people coming in from red countries?

Will we get that detailed instruction so that everyone is clear?

One of the reasons we wanted to hold back on that was until we had, as Dr. Holohan said yesterday, the arrangements between the Department of Health, the Department of Transport and others. One of the benefits of my being here today is to set that out. There is considerable confusion and uncertainty on this. We did not want to add to that. The Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, who has responsibility for the aviation sector spoke in the Dáil or the Seanad - I cannot remember. As soon as the Government made a decision, we went out with the broad proposal. It is only now that the finer details are in place.

I want to put more eloquently the point I made earlier and was caught for time. Dr. Holohan told the committee yesterday that we will be implementing restrictions and lifting them for the foreseeable future until an effective vaccination is found. That vaccination might not necessarily be implemented successfully with the vast majority of the population here until the end of 2021, which is of concern.

I reiterate how critical it is for European transport ministers to actively discuss investing in research for antigen testing and for that subsequently to be brought to the Heads of Government and State. We need more research and investment in antigen testing. It is the only solution for airports.

As Dr. Holohan and others have said, most of the reductions we have seen in the past two weeks since we moved to level 5 relate back to the level 3 restrictions, we had prior to that. The best scientific advice suggests it takes ten days or two weeks before we start to see the impact of a particular measure. While we need to keep adjusting to this, that gives me some hope - if no more than hope - that as a country we have shown ourselves capable of stopping this virus in its tracks and that we were able to do that under level 3 restrictions. Based on what we are learning in this process and what the Irish people have shown themselves good at doing, there is no reason we should not look further in level 2 and other restrictions even in advance of a vaccine to give us the capability to control this virus. We cannot in my mind yo-yo in and out of very difficult restrictions all the time.

Unfortunately, we must be out of this room. When before Christmas does the Minister expect to have a proper outline framework on both orange and red whereby the public will see the guidelines and the rules by which they must abide if they are advised to quarantine? In terms of a timeframe, are we looking at the end of November 2020 for that?

My preference is that it would be before then. It has to be sooner than that.

Next week, or in two weeks?

I am aiming for a timeframe of the next two to three weeks.

I thank the Minister. There is some positive news today for the airline industry.

I want to ask the Minister whether he is willing to look at models that have been tried in Finland and the Netherlands to address the imbalance of airports based in capital cities versus regional airports.

I was talking to the Chairman earlier and the national planning framework contains guidelines on balanced regional development. The aviation strategy is part of that.

We are breaching guidelines. I would like to thank the Minister for attending and engaging with the committee.

The joint committee adjourned at 1.40 p.m. until 11.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 11 November 2020.