European Digital Green Certificate: Statements

Gabhaim buíochas leis na Seanadóirí atá i láthair inniu, agus gabhaim buíochas as an deis seo míniú don Seanad cad atá ag tarlú leis an ábhar fíorthábhachtach seo. The pandemic continues to have a significant impact on the lives of everyone in Ireland. The Government's public health response to the pandemic continues to be thorough and based on best international and national evidence. Over December and January last, Ireland experienced a third wave of Covid-19 due to a combination of relaxed restrictions, increased international travel and the importation of the B.1.1.7 variant. This variant of concern is now the dominant variant in Ireland, making up approximately 94% of cases. Due to the significant impact of this variant on the health sector and wider public health, the Government took proactive measures to address the risk of importation and the spread of further variants. Thanks to the exceptional efforts of the people and broad observance of public health measures during recent months, there has been a clear improvement in the prevalence of the virus in the community. With this recent stabilisation of the epidemiological situation, the Government has taken cautious steps towards the reopening of our economy and society through gradual lifting of restrictions.

The priority in Ireland is always to maintain control over the disease and prevent a further wave of infection until the vaccination programme offers a widespread population level of protection. To support this the Government has enacted proactive, targeted health protection measures to mitigate the risk of variants coming to Ireland. Travel policy is kept under ongoing review with respect to the developing epidemiological situation and public health advice. We also have to look to the future and prepare for further reopening of society and travel.

We are keen to ensure that every effort is made to achieve alignment of travel policy across the European Union to prepare for the opening of travel again for non-essential and leisure purposes as soon as it is safe to do so. European Union travel is an important and valuable way of strengthening the solidarity and collegiality across the Union and freedom of movement is a fundamental right of citizenship of the European Union. Ireland has previously implemented the traffic light system, which supported a co-ordinated approach across the EU to travel restrictions in the context of Covid-19. Our travel policy is kept under constant review, considering the domestic and international epidemiological situation.

Currently, all travellers to Ireland are required to complete a passenger locator form, undergo Covid-19 testing and observe home quarantine. Ireland now maintains a list of designated states, following an assessment of the risk of importation of variants of concern. Travellers from designated states are subject to enhanced restrictions, including mandatory hotel quarantine, which was introduced primarily as a health protection measure to address the dangers posed by variants of concern. These measure are necessary in stabilising the spread of Covid-19 in the community but as we move forward together to meet the next phase of reopening society, we very much welcome the significant step facilitated by the digital green certificate regulation proposed by the European Commission.

The Government recognises the importance of the digital green certificate regulation in supporting the lifting of restrictions currently in place in a co-ordinated manner and facilitating that fundamental right to which I referred of people in the EU to move and reside freely within the EU. This proposal will facilitate free movement within the European Union through a common framework for the issuance, verification and acceptance of certificates relating to vaccination, testing and recovery. This technical tool will include proof of vaccination, proof of a negative test result or proof of immunity after recovery from a recent Covid-19 infection. The proposal builds on previous technical work carried out in the EU Health Security Committee and the EU eHealth Network, both of which the Department of Health has fully engaged with throughout the pandemic.

The regulation is proposed to be a temporary pandemic measure, lasting for 12 months. Ireland and other EU member states will decide how to use the certificate as part of national travel measures in line with subsidiarity. The proposal is moving rapidly through the negotiation process at EU level, as part of an urgent procedure. An ad hoc working group was established at EU level to examine the proposal in detail. Ireland participates fully in these discussions on an interdepartmental basis to ensure careful consideration is given to the proposal across a number of sectors. This ad hoc group at EU level agreed the Council's negotiating mandate for the proposal. The European Parliament adopted its negotiating mandate for the proposal last week on 29 April.

The European Parliament and the European Council have begun negotiations, known as the trilogue, to finalise the details of the proposed regulation and we are actively engaging in the negotiating process as part of the Council to ensure that our priorities and needs are realised. Those negotiations started this week and I understand they will continue into next week and the following week. Operational aspects for the interoperable certificate system are currently being progressed in parallel with the proposed regulations and the negotiations, which is understandable due to the significantly short timeframe. Engagement is ongoing, not just at a European level, but on a cross-governmental basis here in Ireland to co-ordinate operational procedures as this very significant proposal is progressed and implemented.

In the coming weeks and months, the Department of Health will continue to develop the technical aspects to implement the certificate system, while developing the supporting operational procedures, legal instruments and a communications campaign, as appropriate. It is of significant importance that this proposal is implemented in Ireland without the risk of diverting limited resources away from providing or supporting health services, but once this proposal is enacted through regulation it will be legally binding on the State from its enactment. The priority at the moment is the core systems that support the roll-out of vaccines, regaining and maintaining control over the disease and preventing a further wave of infection until the vaccination programme does its work on the population. To be clear, the Government is committed to the proposal, which will be an obligation under the European Union, and it will be a right of citizens to obtain this certificate in accordance with the terms of the regulation.

I look forward to hearing what the Senators have to say. I will try my best to answer questions at the end. While the Department of Foreign Affairs is obviously very much involved in this, the Department of Health is leading on it. I am certainly keen to progress it as much as I can as it is before the General Affairs Council at EU level.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, to the Chamber. It is great to have him here and it is nice to be having a positive discussion connected to the pandemic about reopening and getting back to travelling. This is good not just for the economic benefits for the country, but it is also good for people to get to see family and friends and to be able to move more freely. Freedom of movement across the EU is something that we took for granted before the pandemic and I believe we will place an even greater value on this when we get back to travelling once again.

Members will be aware that the digital green certificate is an EU proposal for a way to facilitate safe travel for our citizens within the EU during the pandemic. The intention is to provide official, digital or paper proof that a person has either been vaccinated against Covid-19, has had a negative test or has recovered from Covid-19. Ireland, as a member state, intends to have the framework ready by the summer, and other members states are planning to do the same. Now that the member states have agreed their position, they must engage with the European Parliament and negotiate the final version of the regulation. My MEP colleagues, Billy Kelleher and Barry Andrews, are actively involved in that negotiation and the debate at the EU Parliament level.

The European Union Parliament and our MEPs had an extensive debate on the digital green certificate and they have addressed many of the key issues and concerns that people in Ireland and in other members have, rightly, been raising. First, they discussed the name "digital green certificate", and I would agree that it is quite confusing as to what this actually is. There appears to be support to rename it as the "EU Covid-19 certificate". One would know more quickly what this means than the original name. There was also extensive debate on how long the certificates should be in operation, with the majority of MEPs agreeing that a 12-month limit was appropriate. I also believe this is appropriate. There should be a sunset clause on this and it should not be something that lasts indefinitely. This is a sensible suggestion and we can look at reviewing things in 12 months' time. We have to be honest that this is an extra layer to travelling and some citizens will view it as a restriction on their rights as EU citizens to move freely across member states. This is why it is important to not require the certificates for an indefinite period and that we have a review point.

There was an interesting debate around the potential economic unfairness of requiring testing where the cost in some member states might be prohibitive. MEPs made a strong call for free testing to be made available to citizens to avoid any monetary barrier where the cost of testing is very high. This measure is also intended to avoid discriminating against a person who is not vaccinated, remembering that some people may not be able to get vaccinated for medical reasons or other legitimate reasons.

At the conclusion of the debate the measure was passed by a large majority with a final vote of 540 votes in favour, 119 against and 31 abstentions. This is a very strong majority in the Parliament, following a lengthy debate, to support this proposal. I believe there is equally strong support here in Ireland, if not stronger, to put in place a pathway back to safe international travel for our citizens. As an island nation, we cannot close ourselves off from the world forever. As a small open economy, we need international travel and movement of people across the EU and indeed the globe for our economy to function. Yes, it is a barrier to travel but it is also an important protection for public health. Every effort will be made to make this as seamless as possible with the least amount of disruption to travellers. No system is perfect and the main thing we need to watch out for is that we do not discriminate against those who may not be able to afford expensive tests. We must, therefore, find a solution to that issue to make sure affordable testing is available to everyone.

There are still reasonable questions around the remaining unknowns during this issue. How long will a person be immune having recovered from Covid-19? What length of cover do each of the European Medicines Agency, EMA, approved vaccines provide? These are questions we cannot answer yet. What position will the EU take in relation to WHO approved vaccines that have yet to be approved by the EMA? In my view, the EU should be flexible and if the WHO has given approval for a vaccine, that should be sufficient to qualify for a digital green certificate or whatever it may end up being called.

Negotiations between the European Parliament, based on its priorities, and the European Council are to start in the next week or so. The plan is to conclude the negotiations by June and give member states six weeks to implement the new system. Some concerns have been expressed here in Ireland that we would not be ready on time, but I am confident that we can be ready, and that we will be ready if the will is there on the Department and the Government side to make this happen on time.

EU countries, including Ireland, are currently developing their domestic software for digital green certificates in tandem with the legislation being negotiated at a European level. We need to have that software ready because we will be mandated to provide these certificates to people when they request them.

At this point, we are all wondering what this will mean in practice for travel this year. It is too early to say what the practical implications will be, but the public want to see a safe return to international travel. I urge caution, but the time is right to open up our country and move towards movement of people. Our aviation, hospitality and tourism sectors all need it. I urge the Departments of Health and Foreign Affairs and the Government to make sure we are the leader rather than the laggard among European states and get this delivered on time for our citizens.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, who is a very active European Minister. I am sure when he took up the position, he did not think we would still be dealing with Covid at this stage. We will be dealing with Covid for a long time. As Senator Chambers said, and I thank her for sharing time with me, the digital green certificate will facilitate people's fundamental right to move and reside freely within the EU. It should be remembered that this Sunday is Europe Day. When I look at the flags in the foyer of Leinster House, it makes me think about the importance of Europe from this perspective.

Unfortunately, Covid has forced us to do things differently. That is why we have to proceed with the digital green certificate which, as Senator Chambers and the Minister of State said, we will have to keep under review. We do not know for how long we will need these certificates but I hope it will not be for too long. The Government is very keen to ensure that every effort is made to achieve alignment across the EU in preparing for the reopening of international travel. That is important. As Senator Chambers said, we are an island country that relies on people coming here. We have done well in recent years in terms of visitor numbers, so international travel is very important. We have to be cautious and careful. At all points, we have to remember the importance of keeping out Covid as much as we can.

I will conclude by making three very brief points about the confusion there is about this certificate, sometimes on social media and sometimes when meeting people. I spent a good while yesterday evening with people in my locality who fed me so many untrue lines about it. I showed them the document from the European Commission to point out some facts. In March, the Commission proposed:

to create a Digital Green Certificate to facilitate safe free movement inside the EU during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Digital Green Certificate will be a proof that a person has been vaccinated against COVID-19, received a negative test result or recovered from COVID-19. It will be available, free of charge, in digital or paper format. It will include a QR code to ensure security and authenticity of the certificate.

When I pointed this out, people had a completely different understanding of the digital green certificate.

As we emerge from the pandemic, the Fianna Fáil Party will work for a revitalised Europe, one which is stronger, more effective and has the assurance to show that now, more than ever, it is the only way forward to peace, progress and security for Ireland and the other democracies of Europe. It must be remembered that freedom of movement is a fundamental pillar of the EU.

I congratulate the Minister of Justice, Deputy Helen McEntee, and her husband Paul, on the birth of their baby, Michael Shane. As the Seanad has not yet done so, I congratulate the Minister on the birth of her son.

I welcome the Minister of State to the Seanad and thank him for taking the time to listen to our statements on these important topics of public concern. I thank the Leader, Senator Doherty, for organising this debate and acknowledging the need for debate on the topic, which I broached on the Order of Business on 26 April. Against that backdrop, there are two strands to Ireland's stated and reported plans for vaccination-type certificates which need to be considered. These are the EU Covid-19 certificate and the domestic vaccine passport system.

I understand that there are pros and cons for the introduction of a Covid-19 passport of some type. I agree that we must consider any solution, technical or otherwise, that might help to navigate our way out of the different levels of lockdown and return to normal life. The digital green certificate is being presented as a solution to facilitate travel and on the surface it would appear to provide some reassurance. I wonder however if a Covid-19 passport is really necessary or if it will help to prevent the spread of the disease. It is interesting to note that the International Air Transport Association believes that they are not necessary and the World Health Organization has expressed doubt about them too. Naturally, I want to see the reopening of the country to travel, tourism, social and sporting events and public gatherings. On the other hand I have real concerns about the introduction of a Covid-19 passport that could result, either now or in the future, in discrimination, surveillance of some description, or would impinge in an unjustifiable way on the fundamental rights and freedoms that every citizen should enjoy.

Ireland is not a paper-carrying country nor in my considered view should it ever become one. On a cautionary note, we do not want see the introduction of any type of health passport, health database or ID card by stealth. When a new power, technology or something like this is introduced, there is almost always function creep. History tells us to be careful about sleepwalking into a situation where we label some people as being clean and others as unclean or as potential vectors of disease.

Equally, we need to be careful about the State making promises to keep people safe in exchange for accepting more State control over their lives. The Patriot Act, which was passed in the US after the 9-11 tragedy, resulted in the unconstitutional mass covert surveillance of the American people by the National Security Agency and is a case in point. The fact that some people in Israel have taken to wearing a gold star as a symbol of opposition to the green pass regime there is a stark reminder of history too.

The European Parliament has recently approved the digital green certificate and it is to be up and running in the EU in June. By the end of June I understand that the Government target is to have over 80% of the population vaccinated with at least one dose. Virtually everyone at risk will either be vaccinated or will have had vaccines offered to them. Effectively, we would have reached the point of herd immunity.

Given the efficacy of the vaccine, one would anticipate that there would be virtually no hospitalisations or deaths attributable to Covid-19 once that percentage of the population is vaccinated. Would it therefore be a real significant risk to public health if someone with Covid-19 entered the jurisdiction without a green certificate when the population had been vaccinated or had acquired immunity or both? Logic would suggest that it would not be.

With uncertainty still surrounding the length of time immunity lasts from the time of vaccination, as well as uncertainty regarding the ability to transmit the virus after being vaccinated, how much use would the green certificate be as a reassurance that the holder of the certificate is not prone to being infected or, more importantly, that he or she will not spread infection?

Certainly, those who test negative in order to obtain a green certificate and who are not yet vaccinated are vulnerable to the infection and upon infection, are likely to spread the disease. To what extent is private enterprise involved in the digital green certificate programme? What is the cost to the State? What is the evidence-based explanation as to the effectiveness and necessity of the digital green certificate to stop hospitalisations and death?

Therefore, while some of the questions above in respect of the EU certificate also apply to any proposed domestic certificate, I nonetheless outline the concerns and questions that I have regarding a domestic certificate. Will the Minister clarify what measures and initiatives are planned in respect of a domestic certificate system in Ireland? How would any domestic system work? What would it be used for? What would be the legal basis for a domestic vaccination passport?

A domestic vaccination certificate would lead to discrimination against people who are awaiting a vaccine, who cannot receive a vaccine for medical or disability reasons or people who simply do not want the vaccine. How would the Irish authorities safeguard against this? How would such a system comply with Article 7, privacy, and Article 8, protection of personal data, of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights? How would it comply with Article 6 of the general data protection regulation, GDPR? How will it comply with the principles of effectiveness, necessity and proportionality? In recent media reports, the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, said that the pilot system on digital passports had been running with a sample group of healthcare workers over the last couple of months. Who is running this pilot scheme? What are the details of the pilot scheme? Has a data protection impact assessment been carried out and, if so, will it be published?

Notwithstanding my questions and reservations about the digital green certificate, I am somewhat reassured by the fact that the MEPs agree that the system should be in place for no longer than 12 months. The document should neither serve as a travel document nor become a precondition to exercise the right to free movement. In order to avoid discrimination against those who are not vaccinated, and for economic reasons, EU countries should ensure there is universal, accessible, timely and free-of-charge testing.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, my neighbour. In a pre-Covid world, we used to meet occasionally in north Meath. Presumably, and hopefully, we will be doing that again soon. I also echo Senator Keogan's remarks in congratulating the Minister, Deputy McEntee, and Paul Hickey on the birth of Michael Shane.

The digital green certificate will facilitate people's right to move freely within the EU and will help support the lifting of restrictions across the member states in a co-ordinated way. On St. Patrick's Day this year, the EU Commission put forward proposed regulations for a digital green certificate. The certificate would include proof of vaccination, proof of negative test result or proof of immunity after recovering from a recent Covid-19 infection. This certificate is intended to be temporary, and each member state would operate within its own systems or public health measures. Basically, there is domestic discretion. Further work on the proposed regulation is taking place between the European Parliament and the European Council and it is expected that these negotiations will be finished by June, in time for the regulation to come into effect by 26 June. To date, Ireland has participated in the working group discussions at EU level to examine the proposal. At home, an interdepartmental group of officials from Departments has been set up, and the Department of the Taoiseach has established a sub-group of senior officials involving a wide range of Departments to establish national policy on this proposal. Member states would be expected to be ready to implement the new certificate by 26 June, with a six-week transition period to 7 August.

Issues that have to be ironed out ahead of implementation include the status of antigen tests and whether they can be used, IT systems, border infrastructure for verifying certificates and other such practical matters, as well as the impact of vaccinations and levels of immunity. Information notes on the draft digital green certificate regulation have been submitted for Oireachtas scrutiny. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health decided on 27 April to keep the files under scrutiny, and the Department of Health is drafting an updated report for the committee's consideration. Separately, but relevant in terms of current vaccination verification systems, the House should note that the World Health Organization vaccination verification records system is already in place and used by people when travelling to destinations where certain diseases are prevalent.

We are all familiar with that. The international certificate of vaccination or prophylaxis is provided for through the 2005 international health regulations. A person's vaccinations are recorded in a booklet, the colour and style of which may vary from country to country. It is then used along with a passport to gain entry into certain countries. This would be happening in normal times. There is a possibility that Covid-19 will be included in such a vaccination system.

A person's right to enter a country and bring home a serious disease or cause ill health had in that fashion to be curbed and was curbed long before Covid. People's rights in this regard are not absolute. Freedom of movement is a pillar right of the EU. We want to preserve it, hence the merit of these certificates. These rights are not absolute and if one is putting lives in danger, they have to be curtailed.

We are a country of emigration with a diaspora all over the world, and that makes egress from and access to this country and island so important. We have kinship all over the world. Apart from those sentimental, personal considerations, the right to travel and the free movement of persons, there are compelling economic issues. Some 143,000 people work in the airline industry in Ireland, of whom 12,000 are pilots. There are 250,000 jobs in the airline and hospitality sectors combined. Travel agents employ 3,500 people. It is estimated it will take until 2024 to bring us back to 2019 levels in our airports and in normal travel. That is a scary statistic. These are serious figures and a serious economic question, apart from quality of life, rights, freedom of travel and all of that.

Dublin Airport was down about 95% of its normal traffic in 2020. I am sure Senator Dooley will speak more about Shannon. Scarily, Shannon and Cork are worse again. That is how bad it is. Aer Lingus has seen a €536 million operating loss. There were supports and it is right that we are proud of the supports provided by Government by way of wage subsidy, tax clawback, rates remission and a €200 million operating fund. That is always good but we must not underestimate the human reality of having pilots and a whole plethora of workers in airports grounded with no work and no motivation. These people have mortgages. In the catchment area of our airports, many major residential centres have built up which are populated by airline staff. There are mortgages to be paid on these properties and families to be educated and reared in these areas.

As soon as we can implement the digital green certificate, it should be done. I will say it to the Minister and I hope he will say there will be no question of the populist nonsense that is around that we might not be up to speed with it. We will be up to speed with it, I presume. I would like to have it reiterated at the end that we will be at the vanguard of it and ready to go with every other country in Europe. We have always been that way and I do not see why it should change now. I believe this is an important initiative to save jobs and livelihoods, to provide quality of life, to link us to our diaspora and regarding the principle of the free movement of persons. There are so many issues that it is a no-brainer, to put it in the popular parlance. We must have the digital green certificates, we must implement them immediately and we must move on it.

In some instances of conscientious objectors and whatever, if it involves a curbing of rights at some stage, no right is absolute when the common good is at stake. A few fundamental rights are absolute, but most rights are subject to the common good and the welfare of general society.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. It is important that we discuss this matter and the potential it offers us as an island nation.

There is undoubtedly a palpable degree of optimism and hope in the country at the moment, and we must do everything we can to protect it. The vaccination roll-out has created a sea of optimism that is capturing more people every day. The discussion around the prospect of booking foreign holidays is happening in more homes as each day passes. The prospect of our tourism industry welcoming back much-needed foreign visitors is also something that we need to discuss and for which we must plan. When the Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tony Holohan, states as he did yesterday that more than 30% of the adult population had been vaccinated with one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine and that it was time to feel hopeful and start planning our summer, we must all sit up, take notice and begin planning.

However, in supporting the concept that is a European digital certificate, it is important that we debate the way such a certificate would work in practice and how it could adhere to and work within the public health advice, which we all must continue following in order to ensure that our country reopens up and we get out of this dreadful situation once and for all. There remain a number of questions on the use of this certificate. I appreciate that the Minister of State addressed some of them today, but it is essential that such a certificate is only used for travel purposes and can only be used while the pandemic continues. From what we know, the certificate will only contain a person's name, date of birth and details about whether he or she has been vaccinated, had a number of negative tests or recovered from the virus. It would take the form of a digital or paper copy, ensuring that all those who may want one can avail of it. The Minister of State outlined some of the concerns around how these data would be held. Equally important is the question of where it would be held. There are also concerns about freedom of movement, which is one of the bedrocks on which the EU is built.

Recently, I read that Ireland might not have the technology ready to implement this certificate as proposed in other states by the end of June. The Minister of State addressed this point. Notwithstanding that, he might let us know the cost of such technology, if that is known to him, and where we sit in terms of securing it. He might also let us know how far we are away from having it up and running, should this measure be passed by our State.

In welcoming the concept of a digital green certificate, it is important that we note the concerns of our tourism industry and aviation sector. The Irish tourism industry is facing its greatest ever crisis. The headline figures it is suffering are mind blowing. To cite just two of them, there has been a loss of €5.7 billion in earnings from overseas visitors and upwards of 160,000 jobs have been lost, with several hundred businesses facing permanent closure. The tourism and hospitality industry employed more than 265,000 people throughout the State. It was Ireland's largest indigenous employer, accounting for one job in nine. Some 70% of those employed in the tourism industry operate outside Dublin. Tourism has become the heartbeat of rural Ireland and a vital component of life there. The importance of a pandemic travel certificate to this industry cannot be underestimated. We need to secure as many of those jobs as possible.

I have spoken about protecting the optimism and hope that everyone in the country is experiencing. My party leader, Deputy Kelly, has continuously raised the important role that rapid antigen testing can play in protecting this country and ensuring that travel in and out of it can begin again and those in the industry can start planning. We should be considering the model used in the UK, where every household has been given seven free tests. In recent days, we have seen one of the largest retail outlets here beginning to stock rapid antigen tests on its shelves.

It is vital that we use some form of continuous testing, be that through an increase in the number of test centres popping up in hotspots around the country or some Government-led rapid antigen testing system, because we want to able to offer some form of tourism experience to those travelling into our country and to those of us on the island who will once again be domestic tourists this year.

It is important for so many in our hospitality and tourism industry that we fight this pandemic in every way we can. We must ensure that the vaccination programme continues to be rolled out without any issues, that we develop a rapid antigen testing system, because it is in such an environment that a digital green certificate can work, and that any variants of this dreadful virus are found and isolated in the quickest time possible.

We support the urgent need for a properly thought-out and fit-for-purpose pandemic travel certificate. There is a lot of merit in the proposed digital green certificate that we can work with. The aviation industry in this country needs our support to get back to doing what it does best in transporting people to and from our island. I note from my engagements with many in the tourism industry here and from the new RTÉ programme, "Open for Business", which aired last night, that the tourism industry is looking for some form of certainty so that businesses can plan and take back the valued employees that so many of them had to let go when this pandemic first struck.

The digital green certificate can make a difference. It can be supported. We need to ensure that the momentum and the hope mentioned by the Chief Medical Officer and others is maintained. We look forward to discussing and debating the content of the certificate that will be proposed by the Government, its extent and purpose. Most important, we all look forward to the time when we can travel again in normal circumstances.

Ar dtús báire, cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit ar ais chuig an Teach fá choinne na díospóireachta ar na ráitis seo inniu. The European digital green certificate moves society in the right direction, but it is not a perfect solution for international travel. My colleague, Sinn Féin MEP, Chris MacManus, has extended a guarded welcome to the initiative, but insists a cautious approach must be taken to ensure that it is a success. It is designed to facilitate a smooth path to the resumption of international travel, but we need to be clear that states within the EU must retain their independence in regard to public health rules for travellers such as, for example, mandatory hotel quarantine, or for that matter, in regard to local services which involve the free movement of people, especially young people, in and out of bars, restaurants and venues attracting the public. The intention in limiting people's free movement is to protect all of society and the easing of restrictions should be to do likewise.

We must be careful in our anxiety to get it right that we do not lock people out of the reopening. People are understandably tired of lockdown, especially people who have been living in extreme isolation. For all of us, it has been a difficult situation in terms of our mental well-being. It does not matter what age one is, the anxiety caused by the fear of the virus has been universal. There are many welcome signs of progress towards a new normality, North and South. A digital certificate is a high profile example of just one of these welcome signs. As the Minister of State, Deputy Thomas Byrne, will know, it is not a cure-all remedy to international travel within the EU, but one of a number of many layered measures, with an effective vaccination programme as a solid foundation on which further careful and medically driven advice can steer us to the new normal.

We need to continue to work together following public advice to keep each other safe at all times. The Governments, North and South, must continue to play their part by putting in place robust systems for testing and tracing, quarantine, and building the capacity of the health services. The implementation of the certificate must be done fairly. There is an opportunity to return to safe international travel within the EU. The system which underpins the safe travel between countries must be co-ordinated and focused on creating a travel system that engenders public confidence in those who are travelling. More important, it must be well received by those who are not travelling. People are following what is happening around the world and are understandably worried. We must put in place secure and protective measures to accompany the digital certificate. Fairness, security and privacy with respect to people's personal details will be central pillars of a successful system. We must guard against inequality and the risk of further disadvantaging those who are being made to wait the longest for a vaccine. Many of our young people have made huge sacrifices in the past year, but they are not alone in that. In the majority of cases, they still have not received the vaccine.

I commend my colleague, Chris MacManus, for the focus he put on the need for exemptions in special cases. The reality is that some people cannot avail of the vaccine for medical reasons. The digital certificate must have built into it a credible and manageable exemption mechanism that is respectful of people's special circumstances. The travel plan and complementary system around it, will require ongoing monitoring by all involved in its implementation.

I note coverage in the media this morning in respect of the call by the Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communication Networks for antigen testing to assist what my colleague, Deputy O'Rourke, has called a safe return to air travel rather than a boost to air travel, as some people have suggested. Deputy O'Rourke stated today that in the absence of mandatory hotel quarantine for all, the London-Dublin route provides an ideal study site. That would involve, as he says, no change to travel advice and essential travel only. Serial antigen testing in additional to mandatory pre-departure PCR tests provides more protection than we have now. The study would provide useful data. Hopefully, the introduction of the digital green certificate will coincide with a suite of measures in due course that will see us all in a better and safer space in the time ahead for the summer season at home and abroad. Go n-éirí linn in that regard.

I conclude by agreeing with Senator Ward. It has been an extremely difficult and challenging for our aviation sector. It is important that we continue to express our solidarity with and thanks to those workers, and indeed all workers, who have been so badly impacted by this pandemic and those front-line workers who have sacrificed and endured so much to help in the broader process of keeping us all, as a society North and South, safe guarded and protected from the harms of this virus.

I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. As a respected and committed European, he no doubt appreciates EU solidarity in this regard. It is logistically challenging. The digital green certificate can serve as proof of vaccination, testing and recovery in order to waive restrictions to free movement put in place in a member state on public health grounds such as testing or mandatory quarantine requirements. When travelling, every digital green certificate holder will have the same rights as citizens of the visited member state who have been vaccinated, tested or recovered, so it is important to hold one of these certificates. I have a green certificate but it is a different type. It is a membership green card for An Comhaontas Glas but that will not get me too far. However, this green digital certificate will. It will facilitate free movement and remove barriers to travel. It is not perfect and I understand the concerns expressed by some civil rights people, who are genuine in their concerns, but we must balance the countervailing rights. I believe this is a proportionate response to get Ireland moving again and to open it up, particularly since as an island we can be isolated.

I welcome this debate but I would like a further debate on a later date. We have EU solidarity but what are we doing about global solidarity for the people who do not have a voice? This is great news for the EU today and we are moving in the right direction. However, I was concerned to read very recently in The Guardian that according to WHO research, tens of millions of asylum seekers, migrants, refugees and internally displaced people around the world have been excluded from national Covid-19 programmes. The gaps mean that a scattered group numbering at least 46 million people, which is approximately the size of the population of Spain, may struggle to get vaccinated even if a global shortage of doses eases. Among the excluded are 5.6 million people internally displaced by six decades of civil war in Colombia, hundreds of thousands of refugees in Kenya and Syria and nearly 5 million migrants in Ukraine. According to WHO research conducted in March, India, Nigeria and Indonesia are among several large countries whose vaccination programmes exclude displaced people. Other countries like Pakistan appear in the list but have since amended their plans to make them more inclusive. Well done, Pakistan. Is this not the elephant in the room as we help our fellow Europeans? What are we doing?

Who is the voice for the Third World? They feel like fifth class citizens. I asked our Commissioner to move on this and yet Joe Biden, the leader of the free world, is ahead of us on this. Fair play to President Biden for waiving the intellectual property rights. Of course there was pushback from the drug makers. I would ask the drug makers if they have made enough money yet. I would firstly say "Thank you so much". Barry McGuigan kept saying that to Barney Eastwood. I could not say "Thank you" enough to drug makers. They have saved lives but they have also made money. When will the drug makers say that enough is enough? Have they made enough money yet? When will their shareholders say that? I do not believe that they will do so any day soon. It will take global leadership and solidarity.

Unfortunately the EU, which the Minister and I are proud members of, is behind the door despite the assurances I got from Thierry Breton when he addressed us at a meeting of the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs. If the call can go out through the Minister's influential office and the Irish Government, we are small in numbers in Ireland but we box way above our weight in the area of influence and leadership. Ireland is a global leader and is on the UN Security Council. Irish voices are needed now. We understand what it is like from the Famine days. Perhaps that is why we are so generous with fundraising at times. Irish people go through the stratosphere of generosity. I ask Irish people to make their voices heard.

I know we are on the right page here but some of our fellow world citizens are dying in the streets because they cannot get beds or oxygen. I did not want this lovely hour to go by today without placing on the record of this House my deep concerns that we are moving far too slowly. A rising tide would lift all boats but I do not see that tide lifting the weakest. One judges a society on how it deals with its weakest, the disadvantaged and the less well off. Many are in rogue states and cannot even raise their voices. They are being left behind and dying because we are hoarding vaccines. We are ensuring that the people who are not in danger of dying any time soon come first, before the most vulnerable in another part of the world. Is it not an accident of birth that, whatever part of the world one lives in, one will have to wait an extra three or four years for this vaccine? That is reprehensible to me as a public representative and to the people of Ireland. We should not accept that. We have to push. Our voice must be heard.

While I welcome this brilliant initiative, because it is a practical way of getting business going again, I hope the Minister might address this and do his best. I know his heart is in the right place and he might be able to update me on the good work he is doing in that respect. It is no criticism of the Irish Government but a criticism of the global economy where the rich get richer and the poor, vulnerable, sick and disadvantaged do not have a voice. The rich do not care about them or they would have looked after them for a long time before now. I hope that as a Seanad, we can put a separate hour aside to put all our collective wisdom and brains together. There is much ingenuity and innovation in this Chamber. Can we do something in Seanad Éireann to redress that grotesque imbalance in the world?

Like others, I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, and thank him for the work he has done on this issue to date. I know that, committed European that he is, as we all like to think we are in this House, this is a welcome development. It is about underpinning one of the four fundamental freedoms upon which the European Union was founded and exists. I am relatively pleased with the progress so far. I have some concerns about the way in which the European Union initially managed the vaccination programme, the purchase of vaccines and the way in which that was handled. That is working its way through. I am pleased with the progress of the European Parliament, in that it has progressed this initiative with the Commission, and now it is down to the member states. That is always where it gets tricky. I look to Senator McDowell, who has far greater experience in dealing with the Council of Ministers than I or perhaps most in this House.

What I am concerned about is the potential for domestic discretion, which is enshrined there and which is always helpful when it comes to the enactment of laws. I am concerned about the way in which the Government is moving, particularly on the free movement of people from an aviation perspective. We are an island nation on the periphery of Europe. The digital green certificate and the benefits that it accrues to member states and citizens of the European Union have far greater importance in Ireland than they do in France, Belgium or any other country, with the possible exception of Malta and Greece. The reality is that 90% of the travel in and out of this country is by air and we need an aviation plan to coincide with the introduction of the digital green certificate, not in some kind of sequence but developed in concert and at the same time. If we do not, then there will be real and substantial threats to our connectivity because airlines, aircraft and the airline business generally operate in a global sphere. Airlines are looking at their aircraft and wondering where they can make best use of them or get a return on investment. I do not need to lecture the Minister of State, as many airline workers live in his constituency so he knows full well the issue.

We need the Government and the Department of Transport to move quickly to develop an aviation recovery plan. The National Civil Aviation Development Forum is ahead of the curve by producing a document entitled Ireland's Aviation Restart Plan that it published on 14 April. The forum has made some very sensible proposals. An awful lot of research was done and there are about 14 recommendations. The forum set out a coherent plan for the recovery of the aviation sector. Of course it requires bringing to an end without delay the mandatory hotel quarantine aspect. The plan looks at the necessity to lift the ban on all travel except for essential travel. The forum does not prescribe or require that the ban is lifted today, tomorrow or next week. It just needs a roadmap or timeline for when we will get in line with other European countries. We introduced mandatory hotel quarantine but no-one else in Europe did it to the same extent. I was concerned about its introduction at the time because I thought it was a rather hasty response to where public opinion was at in that particular week. Public opinion changes very quickly when other fundamentals change. With a third of the population now having their first vaccine, I can assure the Minister of State that if he did a vox pop or any kind of polling or testing that he would discover that attitudes have changed dramatically. Also, the people who I met along the way who wanted hotel quarantining on a particular day now have shifted their focus and attention to getting on with their lives, so we need to be much more flexible. That is why I had real concerns about its introduction but it now has the capacity to be a major inhibitor to the recovery of the aviation sector, which employs 150,000 people. Notwithstanding the positive impact that the aviation sector has on our tourism and hospitality sectors, another 150,000 people, and perhaps more, are directly affected by not having international tourists.

To conclude, we need a wider perspective. This is why the role that the Minister of State plays, from a European perspective, can help in developing a bilateral arrangement with the United States because that is really important for the aviation and tourism sectors.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to take this debate today because it was difficult to get. I appreciate that although the Department of Foreign Affairs is not responsible for rolling out the digital green certificate, he is here to represent the Government's views. I am genuinely appreciative of that so nothing that I say is personal to him.

I want to make some remarks about mandatory hotel quarantining because the Minister of State opened his remarks by saying that it was part of a response to the situation in which we found ourselves. The situation was grave in January but, to my mind, we were dragged kicking and screaming by populism to introduce mandatory hotel quarantining, to alleviate the blame or responsibility of where we were in a country.

The Minister of State mentioned that we introduced mandatory hotel quarantining because the UK variant was having a significant impact in Ireland. Despite this, we left the doors and windows open to Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom while picking on other countries and, in particular, on Irish citizens travelling to and from those other countries, through the requirement for mandatory hotel quarantining. It was highly regrettable that the number of exemptions far outweighed the number of rules, that we settled every single court case taken against us with regard to hotel quarantining and that we ended up having more holes in the system than there are in a bloody block of Swiss cheese.

The best thing we can do is to quietly let the sunset clause come and go and to accept that we made mistakes while acknowledging that we will have to work incredibly hard to rebuild our reputation, which is damaged not just with the Commission, but with our EU counterparts. That will be the Minister of State's job. Over recent months, ambassadors from countries such as Austria, Italy and France have bemoaned the treatment of their citizens and of Irish citizens living in those countries. I genuinely wish the Minister of State well in rebuilding our reputation but the best thing we can do is to let that sunset clause come and go and to let mandatory hotel quarantining be a thing of the past.

I welcome the Minister of State's reference to our legal obligations with regard to introducing this certificate and our absolute commitment to doing so. Only this morning, however, our national flag-carrier airline announced €103 million in losses for the first quarter of this year in addition to accumulated losses of €548 million for 2020. The Dublin Airport Authority, the semi-State body that runs our airports, has reported €250 million in losses. Ryanair has not told us of its losses yet but they have to be multiples of those figures. More than 140,000 Irish people's livelihoods have been in suspension since March last year. Those who are lucky enough to get it are living on the pandemic unemployment payment while others are living on a fraction of payments made under the employment wage subsidy scheme or temporary wage subsidy scheme because of the way in which their companies managed the roll-out of those income supports. They are all looking for consistency of language and approach from the variety of Ministers who have a responsibility to deliver the restart programme for our aviation industry and to roll out the EU green certificate.

There are eight flights leaving Dublin Airport tomorrow; two of these are going to Kerry, two to Donegal, three to America and one to London. Aer Lingus has told its staff that the company is over-resourced and that it requires a commitment from the Irish Government as to when and how the digital certificate is to be rolled out and notice as to the date on which it will be safe to turn on. Dr. Tony Holohan told us all yesterday to go and enjoy ourselves and to get ready to have a meaningful summer, yet the Department of Transport has said absolutely nothing about aviation for the last 12 months. We need to know when the restart programme is to be initiated. We need a lead-in period of at least six weeks because those tickets are not going to magically sell themselves as soon as we press the "on" button.

We also need consistency of language. We are talking about people's livelihoods. When we talk about the aviation industry, we are not taking about aeroplanes and big multinational corporate companies. We are talking about people who live where the Minister of State and I live. We are talking about people who live in Dublin, Shannon, Limerick and Cork and across the breadth of the country. These are the people who serve us when we get on the plane and the ground crew. They are not earning massive bucks. We are also speaking about pilots and the management of these organisations. Some 143,000 livelihoods have been suspended for the last 12 months. We are absolutely obligated to give them hope and a roadmap. Right now, we have given them nothing except a commitment. The question, however, is "when?" Legislation was passed in the UK six weeks ago. The very least we need to do now is to tell them when we expect the legislation to be passed in the European Parliament, when our IT system will be ready, what it will look like and what people will have to do to show they are eligible to travel. We need to tell the airline industry that it can, for example, start selling tickets for the month of July now, in May. We need to give airlines some sort of roadmap and some sort of hope because God knows that those 143,000 families across the country have done so much by living on €350. The very least we can do is to give them some hope that they will be able to earn their own livelihoods sooner rather than later. I thank the Minister of State for coming in today. I appreciate it.

I agree with what the Leader of the House has just said about the importance of addressing these matters urgently. The damage that has been done to the aviation and tourism industries is very substantial.

The damage that has been done in other sectors is very substantial as well.

It is true that we were rushed by some people into hotel quarantining on a kind of wave of public anxiety earlier this year. This system was defective from the moment it was enacted but it had to be done to assuage public opinion at the time, apparently, because there was a panic that things could get substantially worse.

By the way, I did not object to that Bill but I could see there were major problems with it, including no means of enforcement at all, and ridiculous scenes in the courts since then have confirmed everything I suspected of it.

The reason Ireland has been most vulnerable is because our health system is most vulnerable. The reason it is most vulnerable is that we have, uniquely in Europe, the lowest level in any developed country of intensive care facilities to deal with a pandemic of this kind. That situation has existed for the past nine years. Report after report has pointed this out, and the health hierarchy in Ireland, and I include all of them in this - the chief medical officers and the lot of them - should have done something earlier about that. It is a blame game to say that now, perhaps, but we do not know that there will not be another pandemic. We do not know that there will-----

Does the Senator include Mary Harney? Does he include the Progressive Democrats?

Sorry, that is the kind of infantile-----

That is a fact. The Senator was in government.

I was not in government in 2009 when the first report came in.

Senator Buttimer is out of order but this kind of antagonistic stuff-----

What is Senator McDowell doing?

I am not being antagonistic to anybody.

Members need to speak through the Chair.

I am not. I am saying that we-----

Senator, you must go through the Chair. Senator McDowell, to continue without interruption.

I am simply saying, and the Senator has to take this on board, that our vulnerability lies in the fact our health establishment saw a problem and did nothing about it for ten years. That is the reality. It had reports saying there was a problem and it did nothing about it. It did other things. It built children's hospitals, or started to build children's hospitals. It did other things but it did not address that issue.

What I am saying is that we now face a situation where there could be a recrudescence of this and some new variant could sweep over us. We have to now prepare for what should be done in future if facing this kind of pandemic situation. It is not something to be done in two years' time. We need now to work out what was right and what was wrong about the steps that were taken to deal with the pandemic. Was it really necessary to close down our building industry? Was it necessary to do these things? Did the 5 km limit, 25 km limit or whatever other limits really work? We have never worked that out either and somebody has to work it out but the last group of people who should be allowed to pass judgment on this are the same health hierarchy who brought in these measures. I am saying that we need now to begin to work on these issues. Bill Gates said a few years ago that this was going to happen. It is not something which has come from nowhere, and it could easily come again.

I want to say this about Ireland's response. This is the last time we will be sitting on a Friday for some time, perhaps, which I deeply regret and which I opposed yesterday when these decisions were made. However, these Houses are a Parliament of a sovereign State. We have to get our act together to make sure that we start working again, that the Dáil comes back into this Chamber and uses it, that the Seanad goes back to its Chamber and uses it, that it sits three days a week and that its committee work is done.

I was badly interrupted, so the Chair might give me another 20 seconds.

It is important that we do not spend our time making futile statements to each other and that we deal with legislation, which is badly needed. Where is the Land Development Agency Bill? Where are all these measures?

We need to get on with the work. The Houses, as the Legislature, need to be in a position to do their work. A really serious error was made in that we exercised no effective scrutiny over the regulations as they were being made. Other parliaments did. We gave up on the job.

I have given the Senator a lot of latitude.

With the vaccination programme, we have a lot to be glad about, but we have a lot to learn from what went wrong in the past year in Ireland. We should not be clapping ourselves on the back too prematurely in the circumstances we now face.

I believe we heard the Tánaiste say in the House last week that it would be extensively reviewed. He welcomed that as an idea.

The Minister of State is very welcome. I am aware that, since his appointment, he has been dealing with the myriad issues we have faced owing to Covid and EU business matters. I thank him for that. I wish him well with the remainder of his term. Maybe we took for granted the right to travel that we had before Covid and the freedom we had to make decisions on what we wanted to do with our leisure time and our time to connect with family, and also on business. We never had the time to realise how precious this freedom was so we must now do our best to ensure a safe return to travel. That is really important for business and leisure and to give families an opportunity to reconnect. Almost all of us have families who live in parts of the world, including elsewhere in Europe, and we have not had a chance to see any of them over the past 14 months.

It has to be noted that the vaccination uptake has been really high. That one third of all adults have had at least their first vaccination is really important, and that is why the roll-out of the European digital green certificate is particularly important at this time. As Members of the Legislature, we have a part to play regarding the European digital green certificate. There has to be proportionality in measures concerning public health and keeping people safe, with an effort being made not to interfere with people's fundamental freedoms. We have all received correspondence on that because there is a balance to be struck between the protection of fundamental rights and legal implications. The European digital green certificate that is being proposed, which the Minister of State has outlined, strikes a balance. It does not just seek proof of vaccination from an individual who wishes to travel. That it also has regard to a negative test result or recovery from Covid-19 is important because there are those who do not wish to be vaccinated, for one reason or another. There is no way that we should be trying to force those individuals although we should try to encourage them to get vaccinated. We realise we are in a very privileged position when we see other countries' circumstances around the world, particularly in India. I noted US President Joe Biden's very fine statement on intellectual property rights and vaccines. I hope we will add our voice to it.

Ireland is getting ready to open internally for business and societal reasons but we need to send a very strong statement to Europe and the rest of the world that we are also getting ready to open for business with the world.

We would have had our busiest week last week in Kildare with the Punchestown races. There would not have been one hotel or restaurant to be had within a 40- to 50-mile radius. Many would have come from overseas. Sadly, we are at the lack of that. We want to ensure those in tourism and business that we have everything in place to enable that to happen. Everything the Minister of State has said in terms of having the framework and software ready absolutely fits into that agenda.

It is important to stress that these digital green certificates are not vaccination passports and we do not want people who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons to be discriminated against. EU countries are developing national software and we are absolutely depending on that to happen.

I welcome the Minister of State. This is an important debate because I do not have any confidence that we will be ready to have the EU travel certificate. I have no confidence whatever about it. I listened to Professor Ferguson at the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks this week. There has been no interaction between him and the Government and yet he chaired the expert group for the Government.

I commend the Minister of State on his work. The Covid-19 travel certificate is important to us as an island nation and it is coming. The European Parliament has passed it and it is here. It is incumbent on the Government to be ready.

Senator McDowell expressed remarks on certain people who should not re-evaluate the events of Covid-19. I do not have any confidence in our being ready for the EU Covid-19 certificate. I hope I am wrong and I want to be wrong. I recall the contribution of Senator Dooley at the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks. Some 150,000 people, including 40,000 in the aviation sector, are threatened and affected by this. This is of immense importance, as the Minister of State knows well. I want us to understand that connectivity is critical to us from the perspectives of the tourist as well as the aviation and travel industries.

As an aside, we have credit card companies hawking on travel agents looking for inordinate amounts of money. This was raised at the joint committee by representatives of the Irish Travel Agents Association this week. Something is wrong or amiss.

Covid-19 is changing the world and the way we travel and we must be ready for that. I attended a virtual meeting with representatives of the International Air Transport Association. They have a clear request of the Government on being prepared for a restart, on preparation for recovery, on employment support and on cost containment.

The other pressing part is the whole issue of antigen testing. Professor Ferguson made that point at the committee this week.

We have a lead-in period. We must be ready; we have to be. I want the Minister of State to leave here today under no impression but that as a nation, we must be ready to have this certification. As Senator Doherty said, jobs and livelihoods depend on it not only in Dublin but in Cork and Shannon as well.

I wish the Minister of State well in his brief. He has done a major job thus far as the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs. My comments are not critical of him in any shape or form. I want us to be able to say to the international world that we are back and open in June, July or whenever this comes into being. I want the Government to engage with Professor Ferguson's group and the travel agents who have had to endure an onslaught from the credit card companies, which have been seeking large cash deposits when they are already bonded.

This was something I was mulling over in my head as I was coming down today. I was wondering what I would and would not say. I did not know what I would say before I came in so I sat here and listened to the debate. I thought I would make my remarks off that.

Senator Buttimer last comment was that we are back and open. Straight away that hit me. I agree absolutely and take the view that, as an island nation, this is exactly the message we need to be sending to the European Union and the world. The digital green card will allow us to do that.

I have no problem with that, and I will be the first in the queue to get it. I am really looking forward to it. It allows for safe travel and the safe reopening of European airlines.

Colleagues discussed how public sentiment swayed decisions a couple of months ago. We had zealots promoting the concept of zero Covid on this island, which was never going to happen. It was ivory tower type of stuff. All the people who work in the aviation sector were thrown to the wolves. Senator Doherty spoke much more eloquently than I can about them. Those types of jobs and the wage packets of those people was not a concern to the people who were advocating for that policy. It is this type of certificate that will allow those people to get back to work, to put food on the table and to put money back in their wage packets after the past 12 months. We are very lucky in this House, as most of our jobs have stayed pretty much the same, but we can imagine how it was for people who have been out of work for the past 12 months and who will be some of the last to go back to work.

My final point relates to what Senator McDowell said about the fact that we have much to learn from what has happened. I agree that we do. It might be another two years before countries right around the world can have the perspective to look back and say Ireland did this wrong, Ireland did this right, India got this badly wrong or Sweden had the right approach six months ago. Everything is unprecedented, but at least the Government had the ambition to try things out to see if they worked. That is the point people miss at times.

Other speakers in the debate have referred to mandatory hotel quarantine. Where are the people now who were howling for the introduction of mandatory hotel quarantine? They are gone out the back door. We do not hear them talking about that any more when it looks not to have worked out, but they were howling at the top of their voices for it back in January of this year. Bill Gates previously warned about something like this happening. If God forbid, something like this happens again – it is very likely it could – it is very important that countries like Ireland and countries in the European Union take stock of their response and see what worked and what did not work so that there is a dedicated, coherent emergency plan for an outbreak of a virus, which in the future could be far more deadly than this one. We need to take cognisance of that, and this digital card is something that could be used in the future. I very much welcome it.

Gabhaim buíochas le gach duine a ghlac páirt sa díospóireacht thábhachtach seo inniu. Like everybody who has spoken here today, airport workers and airline workers are my friends, my neighbours, my relations, and my constituents. This is an issue of great importance to me, but also to the Government as well. They have been in such a difficult position for the past year or more and they have lived with such uncertainty. I see great anxiety among them. I do not blame them for that for a moment. The uncertainty is leading to anxiety. Unfortunately, uncertainty is par for the course during a pandemic. What is happening with this proposal is a desire, not just to open up aviation, but to ensure that our fundamental rights as citizens of the EU can be vindicated.

A number of issues were raised during the debate and I will try my best to address them. To be clear: the digital green certificate is designed to facilitate travel between EU member states. It may be renamed in the negotiations but that is what it is called at the moment. It is not designed as a domestic passport. It is not designed as a vaccine passport. I heard many colleagues mention that today. It is simply designed to assist people to get across the border of another country.

What is happening currently is that Ireland is already accepting vaccine certificates from certain people. It allows people not to go through mandatory hotel quarantine in certain circumstances. We are already doing that, but there is no standard way of doing it. We are already accepting negative test results, but people who are currently on essential travel at the moment with negative test results have to make sure they have them in the right format. A text from the HSE is not enough. Is the letter or email a person has from the test company enough? Nobody knows what the standard is. The digital green certificate will facilitate essential travel. The current approach is non-standardised across the European Union. People currently on essential travel do not know what their airline will look for or whether what is required in one member state is different from what is required by another member state. I accept that very few are travelling but some people must travel.

A number of speakers addressed the potential challenges of the digital green certificate and I accept there are challenges involved in implementing it. Every member state is facing those challenges. What is happening is that the European Commission has a technical working group on it. It published many of the technical specifications for this online. We can see them on the Commission's website.

This happens through ehealth at EU level. The Irish Government is fully participating in this. The Commission has also offered financial support to member states to put this in place. It is my understanding that the Government has applied for financial support from the Commission to put this in place.

This will happen and when the regulation is in place and when it becomes effective it will be a legal obligation of the State to provide this and a legal right of citizens to have it. I emphasise again that this is not a vaccination certificate. Some member states may let a person in for holidays on the basis of a negative tests result and the person may not be vaccinated at all. That is a matter for those member states. They will make that decision and we will make our own decisions. I hope it will be soon enough but we must continue with the vaccination programme to work its magic in greater numbers. We will make those decisions but there will be countries that will let tourists in simply with a negative result, and the digital certificate will work for that scenario. This will not be a vaccination certificate. No decisions have been taken about domestic use. We need not be worried about a Big Brother scenario in this context. It is simply for the pandemic, it is time limited and it will not last forever. Vaccination will not be a requirement for free movement. This is why there are three parts to the certificate.

Senator Martin and others have raised the very important point of global solidarity. We beat ourselves up too much in this regard. President von der Leyen was correct yesterday when she said that the EU is the pharmacy of the world. The same amount of vaccine doses provided in the EU has left the EU as exports. Through the EU, Ireland has been to the fore with the COVAX programme in donating vaccine to poorer countries, including to the Palestinian territories. We have seen the great success story in India, but the Palestinian territories have had to rely on charity from others, and assuming from their own resources also. As well as this, the HSE and the Government have provided huge amounts of oxygen-related equipment to India this week, which is very welcome. We can beat ourselves up too much on this. President Biden has announced the trade-related intellectual property rights, TRIPs, waiver on vaccine patents, which is welcome. No vaccines have left the United States of America, however, or at least until now, whereas they have left the European Union.

I take on board Senator McDowell's comments and there is no doubt that what has happened during the pandemic will be looked at. We all know neighbours and friends who have died. My deepest sympathies to everyone who has been affected by this. Each case is a tragedy. The death rate in Ireland, however, is among the lowest in Europe. There are various reasons for that, but it is not down to a shoddy health service. It is down to excellent healthcare, to the protective measures taken by the State, and to the priority we put on it. So far so good, but one can never predict with this pandemic. We certainly do not want to do that. The vaccination is working its magic. It was announced today that one in three people have had their first dose and we have really seen the acceleration of the programme over the past few weeks in particular. The Government has taken decisions on a graduated basis to open up the country and, undoubtedly, the Government will take decisions in the near future on international travel.

I assure Senators that all of the challenges faced with regard to the digital green certificate are being advanced, in parallel with the negotiations happening at European Union level. These negotiations are due to finish in early June, when the European Parliament will hold a final vote, and then the Council must approve it also. Ireland does not have absolute control over that. It is going to happen. In parallel, we are working to make sure we are ready for it at the time we are legally advised to have it in place. The digital green certificate will be embedded into current travel measures to reflect the care we are already taking to mitigate the risks of importing further cases of Covid-19 and new variants of concern into Ireland.

Ireland has only closed its border once for essential travel, to Britain for a few days at Christmas. I am sure that all Members were inundated with calls from people about absolutely essential travel at that time and who had to come home. The Government at the time arranged for aeroplanes to get people out of Britain who had to come home. We saw how necessary aviation was at that point. Other member states have imposed travel bans. We have been banned from travelling to certain member states over the course of the pandemic, which were temporary measures. Mandatory hotel quarantine has not been implemented in every member state. Ireland has brought in the measure and Britain has introduced a form of it. Even there, credit is given for vaccination, which is very welcome. I am aware that the Commission has been in touch with the Department of Health in this regard. These measures are taken on a temporary basis in the interest of public health. Senator Doherty referred to the sunset clause in such tough legislation, which it is.

The focus, of course, is on maintaining control over the disease, preventing a further wave of infection which occurred in Chile after it reached a 50% vaccinations target. We always have to be careful never to take anything for granted. We must support the health service, which has been pushed to the limit. It needs to deliver the vaccination programme. Today, one in every three people has been vaccinated with a first dose. That is a fantastic achievement on the part of the HSE, the Department of Health, vaccinators, staff and volunteers. There are many volunteers working at vaccination centres and it is important to recognise them.

The Government continues to work strenuously with EU colleagues in the context of the pandemic to ensure co-ordination and alignment wherever that is possible. Covid-19 is a global challenge and we are committed to continuing to work with other EU member states and international partners to address it together.

Sitting suspended at 3.01 p.m. and resumed at 3.15 p.m.