Dáil debates

Thursday, 25 March 2021

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Covid-19 Pandemic

7:25 pm

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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I very much appreciate this Topical Issue being selected as it is very important. I will preface my comments on the digital green certificate development by saying in no way am I attempting to ignore public health advice. In fact, this measure, as designed by the Commission, is being introduced so that we can deal with it when the Covid vaccination programme reaches a particular point in time. I want to make this absolutely clear to the Minister of State and to my colleagues in the House.

I am sure the Minister of State can appreciate the gravity of the situation when it comes to certain sectors of our society. The most acute and possibly first affected by Covid-19 was the airline sector and then our tourism sector as a result. It is a profoundly important sector in our economy. In 2018 alone, it provided more than 140,000 people with employment and contributed more than €10 billion to the economy in terms of airlines and airports. I am sure it was more in 2019. On and off campus in the Dublin region it provides for more than 200,000 jobs. The importance of the sector and its recovery and ability to recover must be borne in mind.

This evening, the European Parliament committee voted on the digital green certificate, as proposed by the European Commission, with regard to fast-tracking the hearing process and the parliamentary scrutiny process before it goes back to the European Commission for further discussion and debate on the technical merits or demerits of the particular programme. It is being treated as a priority by the European Commission. My request of the Government this evening is that Ireland would carefully assess the proposal, as I would expect the Government to do, and develop its own means of adopting it as quickly as it possibly can so that, as I said here yesterday, when Ireland reaches a point where more than 80% of the population have been vaccinated, as the Government has indicated we will reach at the end of June or early July, we are ready to make a decision as to whether our airlines, pilots, cabin crew and ground crew can return to work. We all want them to do so when it is safe. My request to the Government this evening is to consider carefully the digital green certificate. I also ask it to consider carefully the effect it will have on hundreds of thousands of people and their families to hear that the Government is making a plan that includes them.

It is the same position I adopted yesterday and the same statement I have made on a number of occasions in this House. It is difficult for the Government to justify making a plan only to have to change it a few weeks or even a few days later, and I appreciate that. However, if we are planning for two or three months from now, it is a much easier proposition to make. There is far more understanding in the public sphere and among those pilots, cabin crew, ground crew, chefs, bartenders, waiters and everyone else who relies, to a certain extent, upon the aviation sector. That is why I would like to see the Government take this seriously and to adopt the digital green certificate once it is has gone through parliamentary scrutiny at the European Parliament and has been agreed by the Commission.

Again, I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, for being present to take this matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly.

7:35 pm

Photo of Anne RabbitteAnne Rabbitte (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputy Alan Farrell for raising this important issue. On 17 March 2021, the European Commission published its proposal for a regulation to introduce a digital green certificate. The aim of the proposal is to facilitate free movement in the EU through a common framework for the issuance, verification and acceptance of certificates relating to vaccination, testing and recovery. Currently, the epidemiological situation in Ireland and across Europe remains very fragile, with case numbers increasing in many EU countries. I acknowledge the Deputy addressed this in his presentation. This is a planning exercise. The Government's focus now is on avoiding unnecessary international travel, keeping the numbers of new infections low, accelerating the vaccination programme and reopening our economy and society when it is safe to do so. We are working hard on encouraging citizens to stay the course with restrictive measures pending the roll-out of vaccination programmes.

I acknowledge the value of international travel in the re-establishment of economic activities that rely highly on transport, such as travel and tourism. I am keen to ensure that every effort should be made to achieve alignment across the EU in preparing for the reopening of travel for non-essential purposes, as soon as it is safe to do so.

The Government has taken proactive actions to mitigate the risk of importing variants of concern into Ireland by introducing a range of measures, including a mandatory passenger locator form, Covid-19 testing and home quarantine requirements for arriving passengers. Mandatory hotel quarantine has been introduced as an additional element of the public health measures to combat Covid-19, in particular to address the dangers posed by variants of concern. The Government is continually giving consideration to travel policy, informed by the epidemiological situation internationally and by public health advice.

This proposal builds on previous technical work carried out in the Health Security Committee and the eHealth Network, both of which the Department of Health has engaged with throughout the pandemic. The Department is engaging constructively in the ongoing technical discussions at EU level, in collaboration with relevant Departments, to ensure we can achieve alignment in regard to a safe return to international travel.

There are issues with the proposed regulation which are being considered at both national and EU level, including scientific and ethical concerns. There are also reservations about the additional obligations this will place on the health sector, which has been under immense pressure for over a year. The current focus is on the development of the core systems that support the roll-out of vaccines, and this will remain a priority. As such, careful consideration is being given to the proposal and its many policy, infrastructural and operational implications across a number of sectors in Ireland and in the EU.

The Government has worked strenuously with its EU colleagues throughout this pandemic to ensure co-ordination and alignment, where possible. We are committed to continuing this positive and effective partnership in considering this proposal further.

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for her response. I am encouraged by the positive way in which she and the Department have taken this issue. I completely accept there are certain concerns in regard to the digital green certificate concept and I certainly understand, as the Commission has said, that being vaccinated will not be a precondition for travel. In fact, all EU citizens have a fundamental right to free movement within the EU and this applies regardless of whether they are vaccinated or not. The same principle applies to the rights of non-EU nationals staying or residing in EU member states, who have the right to travel to other EU member states.

The digital green certificate will make it easier to exercise that right through testing and recovery certificates. I completely understand and accept this. Again, I would like to state I am not, by any means, attempting to suggest that we should be returning to the air tomorrow. Of course, we should not do that because it is not safe to do so, and only those who have essential reasons to do so should return to the air. However, in a number of weeks or months, we will be in that position. I believe this certificate is a good way of providing certainty and clarity to users, to pilots and to everybody on board an aeroplane and in airports by giving the certainty that the vast majority of people in Ireland have been vaccinated. There is the high probability, of course, that our fellow Europeans will also be vaccinated as well.

Of course, I should say this sort of certificate is not a first. My colleague in the European Parliament, Colm Markey, MEP, stated this evening that in the 1960s and 1970s, there were smallpox certificates and, prior to that, there were yellow fever certificates, so these are not new developments. However, I am encouraged by what I have heard this evening and I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, for her response. As I have said, it is imperative that we are prepared for the return of our hospitality and tourism sectors, and the digital green certificate is an excellent way of achieving that goal.

Photo of Anne RabbitteAnne Rabbitte (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to demonstrate that the Department is fully committed to advancing consideration of the proposal. We will continue our engagement on the proposal and we will consider it in the context of the Government's travel policy. We will endeavour to ensure that every effort is made to achieve alignment across the EU, where possible, in preparing for a reopening of travel for non-essential purposes as soon as it is safe to do so.

It is imperative for us that any such framework has a sound scientific and ethical grounding to ensure that the sacrifices made by everyone throughout the pandemic are not undermined. Therefore, we will continue to give careful consideration to the proposal and its impact across a number of sectors in Ireland and the EU. The Government has worked strenuously with its EU colleagues throughout this pandemic to ensure co-ordination and alignment, where possible, and we are committed to continuing the positive and effective partnership in considering this proposal further.