Thursday, 24 September 2020

Questions (4)

Matt Shanahan


4. Deputy Matt Shanahan asked the Minister for Transport the status of the trials of proposed pre-flight airport testing and airport protocols before entry here; the stage of the process; the position regarding the overall situation in relation to air travel into and out of Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25992/20]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Transport)

Our aviation sector is in crisis. I ask the Minister to update the House on the trials of proposed pre-flight airport testing and airport protocols before entry into Ireland, the stage of the process and the position regarding the overall situation in relation to air travel into and out of the country.

I thank the Deputy for his question.

The Government's approach to international travel to date has sought to protect public health and contain the disease while respecting that in certain circumstances travel will be essential. Under the plan for living with Covid-19, it is proposed that Ireland will broadly support the European Commission proposals on a co-ordinated approach to the restriction of free movement in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. We will continue to engage with member states and the Commission to develop a regime that is consistent with the public health requirements.

The European Commission proposal is to promote a common approach to travel restrictions and movement within EU. A co-ordinated approach among member states requires joint efforts on four key points: the application of common criteria and thresholds in deciding whether to introduce restrictions to free movement; the mapping of common criteria using an agreed colour code; the adoption of a common approach as to the measures applied to persons moving to and from areas identified as higher risk; and providing the public with clear, comprehensive and timely information about any restrictions and accompanying requirements.

The proposal from the Commission is still under consideration by member states, but there are three components. These are common use of EpiData to determine which country is on which list, quarantine or self-restrictions, and testing at airports. Preparations for the implementation of the European Commission proposal will ensure that the establishment of any pre-departure or on-arrival testing arrangements for incoming travellers do not impact on the testing and tracing of symptomatic patients and serial testing of high-risk groups or workplace environments.

My Department is, therefore, engaging with Department of Health and the HSE in looking at possible ways to provide for a robust testing or screening regime, which is consistent with public health requirements and cognisant of resources and capacity available in the health sector for the testing and tracing of the general public, to allow for an increase in international travel.

I thank the Minister of State. It is abundantly clear that the aviation sector is in crisis. As has been documented internationally, we have imposed tighter strictures on the level of activity in the sector. We have Brexit coming down the tracks and people will need access to air travel in order to create new connections and to open new markets.

I am not sure how widely we have been looking at testing rather than waiting for the European Union to come up with possible opportunities. I raised in the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response some time ago the availability of antigen testing, which has not been examined. These are short-term, 20-minute turnaround tests which could be used in aviation. I cannot understand why they are not being spoken about or approached.

I would welcome the idea of a European-wide protocol on aviation. However, we are probably not on many countries' green lists and we will not be added to them unless we can get something done in the community here. However, I would like to see greater priority given to the issue of testing and quick turnaround tests.

Yesterday, I met the CEO of the Dublin Airport Authority, Mr. Dalton Philips, to discuss the potential of testing at our airports.

The DAA is exploring options for Covid testing involving modelling against a possible new approach to international travel requirements in line with the European co-ordinated approach to help assess the possible business and public health interests under different scenarios. It will factor in projected passenger demand and availability of testing supply capacity and that will inform our decision making. A significant concern is that whatever testing regime is put in place, it should not have an impact on our own public health testing capacity. We are all mindful of that. I agree that getting international travel back is essential. It is critical that we do so in a safe way that is evidence based.

I reiterate the importance of the aviation sector to Ireland. As the Minister of State probably is aware, Ireland has the world's largest aircraft leasing centre. In addition, particularly in respect of Ryanair, there is the question regarding services into Cork, Shannon and Knock. Will the Minister of State give an update on Waterford Airport's application for funding under the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport? It was to get a new runway. We hope that having got past Covid strictures, we can get services into Waterford. It is important to have a south-eastern regional airport link.

I acknowledge all those in Aer Lingus and Ryanair who have seen a major drop in their salaries. We must see what we can do to support that sector into the future.

On testing, it is important that we align ourselves broadly with Europe. The European proposal is a Commission recommendation for Council consideration on 13 October for adoption as a Council recommendation. The proposal is being dealt with under the interior and home affairs branch of the Commission. Initial indications from the Irish permanent representation are that this will be a challenging proposal for member states also. The issue of testing is complicated and is the subject of a great deal of discussion, including in my Department. I met representatives of the DAA yesterday. The officials in the Department also met the HSE and the Department of Health on our approach. Every focus and effort is being put into the testing regime and ensuring we can do that.

Regional airports will be dealt with in my next question. I can revert to the Deputy specifically on Waterford.