First, I thank the Chairman and the committee members for the invitation to meet with them today. In respect of the late arrival of the opening statement, this is a very fast-moving situation and we are trying to give the joint committee the most up-to-date information on the situation. My apologies for that which has occurred on my end in trying to get the latest picture for the joint committee.
I am here this morning in my capacity as chair of an ad hoc sub-group of senior officials on Covid-19 that the Government established at the end of May. I will not introduce my colleagues as the Chairman has already done so.
As the joint committee is aware, the EU digital Covid certificate regulation was developed to facilitate safe free movement of citizens in the EU and the regulation became directly applicable to member states on 1 July. On 29 June, Ireland joined the gateway, meaning that certificates issued in Ireland are recognised by authorities in other EU member states and that Ireland can verify DCCs for travellers arriving from other EU member states. On 1 July, go live day, as a pilot run, we issued initial DCCs, including the digital signature attesting to the fact that it was issued by the issuing authority here in Ireland. On the same day, we had a team working at our ports and airports verifying quick response, QR, codes. On 9 July, Ireland published its travel rules. We were one of only four countries to do so at that stage.
The certificate is now fully operational. Since Monday, 19 July, the Government advisory on non-essential travel has been lifted. Passengers are encouraged to check the public health advice and restrictions in place in the destinations to which they are travelling. The public health measures in place for those arriving in Ireland will depend on their vaccination or recovery status and travel history. If a person is not vaccinated, however, the public health advice remains to avoid high-risk activities, including international travel.
Our approach to implementation of the DCC cuts across a number of Departments and Government agencies. The role of the group I chair has been to: develop a unified project co-ordinating respective efforts of colleagues around the system; identify potential risks and gaps; and progress mitigations and alternative solutions. Thanks to my colleagues, we have made significant progress to date on implementing what is a large and complex programme that has required delivery in a very tight timeline.
On behalf of my colleagues, I will give an overview of the approach adopted and progress to date. Our primary focus was to fulfil our EU obligations in a robust and effective way. In doing so, we had to be very mindful of developing the certificate in a way which provides the greatest assurance in line with data protection as regards what is sensitive personal information.
First, considering the pressures on the HSE and particular ICT teams following the cyberattack, the OGCIO has undertaken to do the certificate-generation process on behalf of the Government. DCCs for vaccination and recovery are being produced by the OGCIO using data provided by the HSE. Vaccination certificates are being pushed out. This approach has enabled us to get certificates out to as many people as possible as quickly as possible.
Where verified email address are available, vaccine certificates are being sent out by email. Where email addresses are not available, certificates will be posted out to home addresses. This relates mainly to those vaccinated by GPs. To date, more than 2.1 million vaccination certificates have been issued, 1.15 million by email and 952,000 by post. As additional people become eligible for vaccination certificates, these will be issued automatically shortly after their second vaccination approximately five days later. Where there is insufficient contact information to send out a certificate, the call centre is available where a vaccine certificate can be requested once a person’s identity and eligibility has been verified.
Is important to note that the certificates are generated based on available information. Data to support certification is the purview of the Department of Health and the HSE. The HSE has multiple data sources for vaccine and data recovery and the data quality is varied. Extensive data quality work was carried out in advance to ensure sufficient and fully accurate information was available to support both certificate generation and the issuing of them.
There will be circumstances where information needs to be updated on certificates and this can be done through the call centre. Significant work on data relating to persons who have recovered has been undertaken. Given the quality of this data and the relatively smaller numbers involved, we decided to provide recovery certificates on a request rather than on the push-out basis.
This will allow us to ensure that we can complete missing data fields, authenticate identity and ensure that address and email details for issuing of the certificates are up-to-date and accurate. Recovery certificates will also be available on request through an online portal, which we hope to open later this week, or through the call centre, subject to verifiable evidence of recovery from a prior infection within the previous 180 days.
DCCs for negative tests will be provided through private operators which meet minimum entry requirements. To provide citizens with EU digital Covid test certificates, providers of Covid-19 tests will be provided with access to the EU digital Covid test certificate service operated by the OGCIO. Access to this service will allow test providers to generate EU digital certificates for all negative or not-detected test results, in line with national and EU regulations. Approved access to the system is contingent on test providers being compliant with the relevant regulations and certain standards and obligations, which are detailed in the standard operating procedures. Prior to receiving access to that system, providers are required to review and digitally sign the standard operating procedures. A small number of private operators have already signed up to provide DCCs and further information on these providers will be available shortly.
An upgraded version of the Covid tracker app now allows people to upload their certificate, regardless of whether they received it in paper form or as a PDF, to a wallet on their phone. The tracker app serves as a pandemic response tool and carries a number of functions. These are independent of each other. It is possible for people to disable other features and use the tracker solely as a digital wallet for their DCC on their phone if they want to do so.
It is worth emphasising that the issue of privacy has added to the complexity of the task and has been given paramount importance by everyone working on the project. Data governance has been the subject of ongoing engagement with the Data Protection Commission to ensure the process is fully compliant with the general data protection regulation, GDPR. The requisite data controller and data processing agreements are all in place.
Discussions are ongoing between the European Commission and third countries with a view to facilitating interoperability and mutual recognition of certificates. The first country to achieve an equivalency decision was Switzerland on 9 July. It should be noted that the EU digital Covid certificate is not a travel document and the possession of the certificate will not be a precondition to exercise free movement rights. Therefore, travellers who do not have a DCC can provide other verifiable forms of proof of vaccination or a valid negative test in Ireland. Members will be aware of media reports in respect of travellers who have travelled to EU countries without a DCC. The Department of Foreign Affairs has been liaising with authorities and has been in direct contact with a number of affected citizens. Our understanding is that Malta has indicated that the digital Covid certificate is a requirement on the Re-open EU website and it has indicated that it will not accept handwritten certificates. The situation underlines our advice to all travellers that it is essential that they familiarise themselves with the rules relating to inbound travel and the process requirements for their destination. A great deal of information is available online and I urge anyone who is travelling to check on the online resources before they finalise their plans.
Passengers entering Ireland must fill in a passenger locator form before they arrive in Ireland. Failure to do so is an offence. The Covid-19 passenger locator form is now an online form. As of 12 July, carriers are obliged to check for a completed electronic passenger locator form, ePLF, before allowing passengers to board or embark. Through enhancements to the electronic passenger locator form, which are being finalised this week, travellers will be required to make a statutory declaration as to their travel status, whether they are vaccinated, recovered or in possession of a negative test and form of proof. This determines what other public health advice, quarantine or testing measures will be applicable to passengers, depending on the country they are arriving from. Once operational, the enhanced ePLF receipt will identify those that have a certificate of a European Medicines Agency approved vaccination, recovery or negative PCR test, or who are otherwise exempt from the requirement to have a negative PCR test. For those travelling on a vaccine or recovery certificate, no further pre-departure checks are required by carriers. Passengers travelling with a test result will be required to provide proof to the carrier of a test taken not more than 72 hours prior to arrival or will be denied boarding or embarking. The ePLF is not reliant on the DCC but complements its use. The ePLF applies to all EU and non-EU passengers, with or without a DCC. Passengers arriving from designated states who have pre-booked a place in mandatory hotel quarantine will be met at the aircraft and escorted separately from other passengers through the airport building for check-in as required. Children aged 11 and under do not need to take a RT-PCR test prior to travelling to Ireland. Children of any age, travelling with accompanying vaccinated or recovered adults will not be required to self-quarantine post arrival. However, where one accompanying adult needs to self-quarantine, then all children must also self-quarantine, unless vaccinated or recovered themselves.
A verifier app has been developed to support checks of the DCC, which allows a mobile device to scan the QR code. The border management unit and An Garda Síochána are conducting spot checks of public health documentation, including the DCC, at ports of entry to the State for the purpose of ensuring the integrity of the enhanced public health regime. The verifier app has been made available to carriers, should they wish to avail of it.
It is acknowledged that there is considerable complexity associated with travel at the moment given the impact of Covid-19 worldwide. Part of the work of the group has been to provide a unified source of information to the public. There is comprehensive information on both the DCC and international travel in general on gov.ie/travel and www.dfa/travel. Both websites will be kept up to date with all the latest information. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of checking on these online resources if you can in preference to contacting the call centre this week.
The call centre has been created at an exceptional pace to manage the required workflows and communications. This has required an incredible effort across multiple Government agencies to put in place the people, processes and technology required. An interim emergency line was put in place from 13 July in advance of the contact centre going live on 19 July, given the level of public interest as soon as the first certificates began to issue. We know there have been long waiting times for many callers and the centre has not been able to meet the level of demand, which involved over 40,000 calls in the past two days and more than 34,000 calls yesterday alone. This far exceeds estimates of call centre demand based on an assessment of travel bookings and survey or insights data on travel intentions that Government or industry have access to. Unlike at many industry call centres, these are complex queries, with over 150 scripts developed to assist agents to answer queries. The rapid issuing of 2.1 million certificates in just over one week has inevitably bunched inquiries to the centre into these initial few days.
The centre ramped up to 55 agents between Monday and Tuesday, with a further 30 to be added on Wednesday. As agents become more familiar with the complexities of queries, we anticipate that the number of calls handled will increase. We had technical capacity issues on Monday and increased technical capacity from Tuesday morning through a second freephone number that will cater for a significantly higher number of calls. An increased number of agents are available to answer calls, but the call volumes are at unprecedented levels and the call centre remains exceptionally busy. We are adding further agents on a planned basis after training over the next two weeks. We urge people to only call the call centre if they have an urgent query and they are travelling in the next ten days. It can only support queries about vaccination certificates and recovery certificates. We have emphasised this in the communications but the centre is still getting calls from people with requests for certificates for PCR or antigen tests. These certificates are generated by third party providers and details of how that system works are available on gov.ie/travel. Current demand suggests that many people who are calling are not due to travel in the short term. These non-urgent calls are adding significant waiting times to all calls and preventing many urgent calls from getting through. We urge people to only call the contact centre if they need to and are travelling in the next ten days.
Between Monday and Tuesday, the call centre initially handled approximately 2,800 calls. Many of these calls involved dealing with multiple requests so they are complex and take time. For example, there were requests for details for a full family. More than 1,000 certificate details have been sent for regeneration and it is expected that these will be reissued within five days. A further 700 queries have been sent to the HSE requiring further investigation before a certificate can be issued. The call centre will continue to evolve over the coming days with new services added to meet emerging concerns and demands from the public. A new online form to request recovery certificates for eligible persons will be released this week. We regret the delays some people are experiencing and we are learning and continuing to improve the service each day.
For anyone who did not receive their certificate yet who is not travelling in the short term we suggest they wait a few more days as we are working hard to clear the final batches of certificates not yet issued, which is due to incomplete data. In addition, undelivered certificates by email and post are being reviewed and this may address some of the queries people may have. These are being proactively managed so that we can reissue as quickly as possible.
We appreciate that any member of the public who has not yet received a certificate or has an error on the certificate that may need to be corrected may be anxious. We are satisfied, however, that we will be in a position to resolve queries quickly and unless a person needs his or her certificate urgently we would encourage people to wait a few more days. The likelihood is that certificates not yet issued will arrive and as the call centre further ramps up we will be a position to deal with all calls more quickly.
In summary, significant work has been undertaken over recent weeks including the technological developments that were required to be stood up at pace, complex data governance arrangements and the scaling up of all operational matters throughout the end-to-end solution. The process will remain under on-going consideration with a view to further refining and enhancing over time.
I commend colleagues across the system for the extraordinary effort and collaboration that has allowed for the data collection, certificate generation and the issuing of more than two million certificates from a standing start in just over six weeks. Again, I assure the public that every effort is being made to ensure that they can get certificates in good time to travel and that no effort is being spared to resolve delayed certificates and any certificate errors as quickly as possible.