Thursday, 26 November 2020

Questions (4)

Marian Harkin

Question:

4. Deputy Marian Harkin asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his views on the feasibility of the State introducing a Covid-19 stamp on passports to demonstrate that travellers have received the vaccination against the virus. [38293/20]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Foreign)

I ask the Minister his view on the various different proposals that we might have immunity stamps on passports or, more likely, digital identities created to show that a person has been vaccinated against Covid-19 for the purposes of travel, both in Europe and with long-haul travel.

Passports are internationally recognised travel documents that attest to the identity and nationality of the bearer. The Irish passport is an invaluable identity document and its integrity is paramount to the maintenance of the level of visa-free access that Irish citizens enjoy to 93 countries worldwide today. Any changes to the format of the Irish passport must be fully compliant with International Civil Aviation Organisation, ICAO, regulations and standards.

The ICAO is a UN specialised agency which defines in detail the required format for a passport.

My Department currently has no plans to introduce a Covid-19 stamp on passports to demonstrate that travellers have received any vaccination against the virus. All passengers arriving to Ireland from overseas, with limited exemptions, are required to complete a Covid-19 passenger locator form. The form supports a system of engagement with arriving passengers, including the targeting of key public health messages through SMS and email. The form can also be used for contact tracing. The Covid-19 passenger locator form is now an online form.

The Government decided at its meeting on 10 November that persons claiming an exemption from the request to restrict their movements on the basis of a negative PCR test up to three days before departure will be required to indicate on the passenger locator form that they have had such a test. This will require a further amendment to the passenger locator form and work is under way within the Department of Health and across Government to give effect to this decision. It may also be possible to include vaccination data when the vaccine becomes available which will provide further reassurance with regard to international travel.

I thank the Minister. I agree with his comments on Irish passports and their value when travelling. He spoke about the passenger locator form but that relies on goodwill and people following the rules. Many people follow them, and many more will, but it is not evidence-based. The aviation sector is so important to our economy, particularly our tourism sector and in that context, are there any discussions at European level on this? I know that it will have to be at that level. Are there any discussions around this issue? Maybe the information does not need to be a passport but could be in the form of a digital app or digital identification stating that a person had been vaccinated. If one listens to the head of Quantas or other airlines, it seems that this is coming down the track. There have been discussions in the UK Parliament about it. Are we preparing for this eventuality?

Yes. We would like to see more co-ordination at an EU level although there has already been quite a lot, in terms of the traffic light system which is now providing a lot more certainty. The truth is that very few people are travelling anyway. The Government guidelines are very clear that any international travel should be limited to essential travel under level 5 restrictions but we are working towards a situation where we hope that can change as we move into next year.

The passenger locator form is not something that relies on goodwill or voluntary co-operation. It is a legal requirement to fill out a passenger locator form on entering the country. It is also a legal requirement to fill it out accurately. If a person puts false information on the passenger locator form, he or she is breaking the law and the penalties for that are quite severe. Travellers who are exempt from the restrictions because they are essential workers or because they have taken a PCR test and are coming from an orange region will have to include that information on the passenger locator form and do so truthfully. Otherwise, they are breaking the law. I hope we will be able to accommodate something similar when vaccination becomes available so that people coming into Ireland who have been vaccinated can complete a passenger locator form that recognises this fact. Obviously, we will have to take public health advice on this but my expectation is that if people are vaccinated, they will be able to avoid the restrictions that currently apply to international travel, particularly those arriving from orange locations. We are working on this and the more we can do together, across the EU, the more effective it can be. However, Ireland needs to protect its citizens against the potential threat of a reseeding of the virus through international travel. We must be careful.

I agree with the Minister that we need more co-operation and co-ordination at European level. The Minister talked about the traffic light system and said that the passenger locator form is a legal requirement, which it absolutely is but the truth is that there is little follow-up. How do we know that the terms and conditions are being adhered to? How many people have travelled through Dublin Airport since we have put it in place and how many have been prosecuted for not filling it out? Some people do not, although the vast majority do.

When the vaccine becomes widely used, more people will travel and unless we want to restrict that travel, we need to find a way to make it work. I am asking the Minister to think about that and to start planning for it.

I can assure Deputy Harkin that we are thinking about it and have been thinking about it all year in the context of international travel. It would be safe to say that Ireland has been one of the most restrictive countries in the EU in terms of international travel. We have taken a lot of criticism from the airlines and there has been huge frustration at our airports because of that. We believe it is for good reason, despite the fact that Ireland, arguably, relies on air travel more than any other country in the EU, with the possible exceptions of Malta and Cyprus. We want to try to change our approach while making sure that we are continuing to be compliant with public health advice. We do not want, following enormous efforts and sacrifices from people, to reintroduce the virus again through international travel, which is a danger if it is not managed right. This is a difficult balance to get right.

We have also made the decision that we are not going to have mandatory quarantine, enforced by knocking on people's doors. Instead, we have introduced a mandatory element to the policy in the context of the passenger locator form and the legal requirement to fill that out accurately. It is not a perfect system but by and large it has worked reasonably well. It has limited international travel significantly and has kept the number of clusters linked to such travel to a very low level. That is not to say it is perfect but we will continue to try to evolve this policy in a way that facilitates international travel but in a safe way.