Tuesday, 11 May 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
53. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he will report on the return of North American international travel (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24018/21]
Will the Minister give a report to the House on the status of international travel between the United States or North America as a whole and the Republic of Ireland? The Minister appreciates there is much confusion both in the media and among the public, especially those working in tourism and aviation, arising from the Tánaiste's comments as reported by Mr. Philip Ryan in the Irish Independenton the status of US-Ireland travel. When will this return and when will travel return for other countries in North America?
I do not believe there is any confusion. There is no clear decision from the Government yet on moving away from our current approach to international travel, which is very restrictive. There is hope, of course, that as we move through summer that position will change as more people are vaccinated and society becomes more protected with the shield of vaccination. Other countries across the European Union will create a level of protection, along with the United States, and there is hope that the public health risks linked to international travel - specifically importing or reseeding Covid-19 and new variants - will lessen. The hope is that will happen as protection for our citizens increases and the protection for those likely to travel increases as well.
The Government has not agreed a timeline or dates around a change to international travel policy.
I hope that by the end of this month the Government will have had an opportunity to consider this seriously and to give a line of sight on the timelines that people can plan and prepare for. We know the European Commission will have a new green passport system ready for June but that is a system that is primarily designed for the EU. Whether or not a similar system gets extended to facilitate transatlantic travel is something the European Commission has hinted at but it has not delivered any papers on it to date that I am aware of.
I thank the Minister for that information. I have come here with my own research and having spoken to many people working within aviation and tourism. I regret to inform the Minister that there is much confusion. I ask that as Minister for Foreign Affairs, because this is critical to his role in his Department, the Minister would engage on a Government level as soon as possible with people working in aviation and tourism on how the digital green certificate will be implemented and on how such a system could potentially work with US travel. There was much concern about the Tánaiste's comments today that there may not be the potential for US travel to return in full until next year, which came as news to many people working within tourism and in aviation. That is why I wanted to highlight that particular point. I accept that this has to be taken with the benefit of public health advice but there is a dire need for clarification on this and I am happy to hear that the Minister will be reporting back to the House and that there will be discussions on this during May. I want to stress the point on stakeholder engagement again. I ask the Minister to comment on that very important matter.
I take the point that there much concern in the travel industry generally and in the tourism sector around wanting to understand, plan for and prepare for timelines around facilitating international travel again. As of yet, the Government has not given a clear timeline around that issue. The Tánaiste said today that he hopes to see travel between Britain and Ireland facilitated to become much freer over the summer months. I hope that is the case. We have a valuable common travel area which we carefully protected through the Brexit process but we are still guided by public health advice on the travel restrictions that are in place. For the EU more generally, the green passport system will be in place in June but it is a policy decision for the State to then decide how and when to implement it here. That system gives a database for us to make policy decisions on the back of.
From my understanding, much of the reporting has been that many of the negotiations on US-EU travel were with the Schengen area and Ireland is not part of that because of the common travel area. Perhaps the Minister could enlighten me and the people who are listening as to whether Ireland will move in lockstep with the Schengen area if there is to be a full reopening of US travel. This is in the context of the fact that there are more than 160,000 people, which is an incredible number, employed by US foreign direct investment in our country. Even in our shared county of Cork we can clearly see that level of investment, whether it is in places such as Carrigtwohill, Little Island or in the Minister's constituency in Ringaskiddy or in Apple in Cork North-Central. There are tens of thousands of people in our county working in US companies. Not only is it important from a leisure point of view to have US visitors coming to Ireland and spending money in our local economy but there is also the foreign direct investment aspect to this. It is deeply damaging to our economy and to aviation in Ireland, which is critical to the economic recovery in the post-Covid era.
The Minister is right that there is a legal and a public health dimension to this but there is also a purely practical dimension to it. The reality is that we will be opening up travel with the United Kingdom and there are transatlantic planes, which used to service Shannon Airport, that are now flying from Manchester to North America. The Minister is acutely aware of this, having an airport in his constituency. Once we have an open and common travel area with the United Kingdom, it is simply senseless if planes are taking off from North America and coming into the United Kingdom for us to not allow planes to go from Ireland to North America. People will simply travel via the United Kingdom and via Belfast if necessary. All we are doing is strangling our economy to no public health benefit if people are travelling anyway, which they will do sooner rather than later. I urge the Minister to keep the practicalities in mind as well as the public health concerns because sometimes some of the public health advice seems to be completely devoid of practical effect. It is not always so but sometimes it is, including the example of the advice on antigen testing, given the European Union position on it.
I can understand the frustration, particularly for those who have airports in their constituencies, but for everybody. It was not too long ago when many Members were calling on us to put anyone who was coming from anywhere into mandatory hotel quarantine. I am not saying the Deputy was saying that but many Members were saying that. We are trying to get the balance right in managing risk and taking the advice from our public health teams and then making decisions with as much pragmatism as we can have in those decisions. We have one of the most conservative and restrictive international transport policies of any country in Europe. I would defend that and if one looks at the impact of that in the non-importation of variants of concern in recent months, that policy is working. The dynamics around that decision are changing, however, because of the impact of vaccines, both at home and abroad. As that risk changes, the policy will change too and I hope we can do that as soon as we safely can from a public health perspective.