Tuesday, 25 May 2021
International Travel and Aviation: Statements
The Minister of State and I thank the House for allowing us this opportunity to address the matter of international travel and aviation. The impact of the Covid 19 pandemic, coupled with the emergence and spread of variants of concern, has resulted in one of the most sustained and deepest periods of suppression of international travel. Globally, aviation is experiencing its most challenging crisis in its history. In Europe there were 5 million flights in 2020 as against 11 million in the previous year. Scheduled carrier flights were down by almost 60% and at the end of the year half of the European aircraft fleet - more than 4,000 aircraft - was grounded. The impact on passenger traffic was greater than on the number of flights as, generally speaking, flights operated at lower load factors.
Restrictions on international travel this year have further suppressed passenger numbers, which are down as low as 3% of normal volumes in our State airports. It has led to the collapse in forward bookings. Throughout the aviation sector, passenger air travel revenues have fallen away to a fraction of 2019 levels. As a result, practically all aviation companies are facing unprecedented challenges. This has led to companies taking action to right size and rationalise their cost base, including redundancies and staff reduction measures, as well as taking steps to safeguard liquidity through borrowing and new shareholder capital.
Moreover, the general reduction in passenger numbers has severely impacted air connectivity, something which is vital for an island economy such as ours. This negative impact on aviation has significantly increased the cost of airfreight for the export sector, increasing the cost of doing business. There is a strong likelihood that without signalling the possibility of an easing of restrictions on travel, major employers will be forced to take further action to cut costs which could be avoided.
The greater risk by far is that the restoration of connectivity will be constrained further, with consequences for tourism, business generally and foreign direct investment. Analysis undertaken last week by Eurocontrol, the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation, suggested that air traffic throughout Europe is not expected to return to 2019 levels before 2025. I can give assurances that through the review of the mandatory quarantine and the development of the digital green certificate, many of these matters are to be addressed by the Government when it meets this Friday. I am confident Ireland will, in due course, be in a position to join in the European approach for a digital green certificate system for international travel with Europe and with certain third countries where the risk is low.
The European approach on the digital green vaccine certificates would see the easing of restrictions on non-essential travel while addressing variants through a new EU-wide emergency brake mechanism. It remains open to EU member states to recognise vaccination certificates from other countries for the purpose of waiving public health requirements in a similar way. The EU regulation for digital green certificates will be formally adopted on 1 June and will enter into force on 1 July. Member states will then have six weeks to achieve compliance by mid-August at the latest. The digital green certificate will be available free of charge in digital or paper format. It will include a QR code to enable security and authenticity of the certificate. The Commission will build a gateway to ensure all certificates can be verified throughout the EU and to support member states in the technical implementation of certificates.
Our system is substantially developed to enable the facilitation of vaccination proof for an individual on request and is compliant with the appropriate EU standards. Already the principle is established in the mandatory quarantine exemption regulations that vaccinated people should not be subject to mandatory hotel quarantine. As the vaccination programme is rolled out and large portions of the population are fully vaccinated, I would like to see this principle applied more broadly in the context of the opening of international travel, whereby fully vaccinated people who do not present an intolerable public health risk for the spread of Covid-19 would not be subject to pre-arrival testing or quarantine requirements.
Given that the digital green certificate might not be in widespread use until at least mid-August, the timeframe permitted by the European regulations, it would not seem reasonable to expect fully vaccinated people to wait for the certificate before allowing freedom from current pre-arrival PCR and quarantine requirements. There is a need for pragmatism to allow for an early discontinuation of these public health requirements for fully vaccinated people to travel within the EU and between certain non-EU or non-EEA countries. However, the epidemiological conditions, including status of variants of concern, must also be favourable for international travel to return, and for the current advice against non-essential travel to be lifted within Europe and with third countries.
Each week we have seen countries being removed from the list of specified countries for variants of concern under the mandatory hotel quarantine regime. This is a positive sign. International connectivity will be critical to economic recovery by providing a key enabler of trade and business, including foreign direct investment and tourism. Getting international travel back up and running is vital for the continued economic well-being of this country and remains a priority for the Government; however, this can only be accomplished through consideration of the progression of our Covid-19 national vaccination programme, developments at EU and international level, and public health advice.
In my capacity and responsibility for communications, I would like to briefly comment on the recent cyberattack on our health service. This is a particularly heinous crime at a time of great stress on our State health system. I commend the dedication of the public health service and its personnel and all the health providers, hospitals, nurses, doctors and the other healthcare professionals who are endeavouring to provide to the public through this challenging period. Similarly, I also commend the dedication of the officials of the Department of Health, which was also subject of a later cyberattack. Within the cross-departmental structures, the officials in our Department have worked tremendously closely on all matters relating to international travel and Covid-19 response over the past year, despite, as is the nature of public policy, often have competing priorities. Officials in my Department will continue to work collaboratively with their counterparts in the Department of Health as it leads on implementation of the digital green certificate and the managed relaxing of restrictions necessary for international travel to resume.
The Government will publish a national economic recovery plan shortly in which it will set out the priorities and objectives for Ireland's economic recovery, reflecting the enormity of the challenges faced by businesses and individuals and setting out the plan ahead for a resilient and sustainable economy. As the State and industry prepare for recovery of the sector from the Covid-19 crisis, the emphasis must be on building back better. For international travel and aviation this will mean greener more sustainable airports, more efficient aircraft and sustainable fuel alternatives, and the efficient management of air traffic. This is both a time for national recovery planning for the broader economy and seizing this moment of opportunity for long-term horizon planning and building back better, as I said, when aviation and international travel resumes.
The entire aviation sector - airports, airlines, catering firms, travel agents and tour operators, pilots, cabin crew, engineers and airport staff - has been affected by the impact of the pandemic. Many of the jobs across the aviation sector are well-paid, highly-skilled and of high value to the economy. The aviation sector directly supports almost 40,000 jobs. Firms range from large- and medium-scale employers, such as the international airlines, the airports, aircraft leasing companies and maintenance, repair and overhaul, MRO, facilities, down to SMEs nationwide, including 200 travel agencies in rural and regional towns as well as in the larger cities. The Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, will address the steps we are taking to support the industry towards recovery and the engagement we have had over recent months and weeks in that regard.
What we have done in these recent months has been steady, slow progress on a step-by-step basis to return our country to a more normal existence, bringing us out of this pandemic. That is the right approach. This summer we will see further measures, including the return of international travel. It is most important that we make that safe and that it will not be not a stop-start exercise. The aviation industry has done good work already in making its part of this safe. We have to do the same at home to make sure the vaccination programme is rolled out and keep the numbers low. That will be the best guarantee for returning to international travel so that we can meet our family and friends and travel for work or for holidays as part of a normal existence. We look forward to that day coming soon.
I join the Minister in thanking the House for allowing us to address the matter of international travel and aviation.
I take this opportunity to acknowledge the announcement by Aer Lingus last week regarding its Shannon base. It is very regrettable that Aer Lingus has decided to close the Aer Lingus cabin crew base at Shannon Airport and to temporarily close its base at Cork Airport as well as embarking on a review of ground handling arrangements at those airports. However, it is also noted that many airlines across Europe are also implementing significant cost saving measures in light of the circumstances currently facing the industry. Reported job cuts in other European Airlines, for example KLM, Lufthansa and IAG is indicative of industry-wide restructuring across Europe. The unprecedented challenges being faced by Aer Lingus and their staff during this difficult time is also understood within this context and the cumulative impact of Covid-19 over the past 15 months. The Minister and I met with the CEO of Aer Lingus to discuss details of the announcement made by the company last week. We reiterated the Government's commitment to supporting the industry and acknowledged the importance of providing clarity on the extent and duration of the employment supports beyond the end of June. We reassured the airline that there would be no cliff edge in the horizontal State supports that have been available from the start of the pandemic.
The meeting with the CEO last week also focused on the future operations of the company in Ireland. The CEO outlined the company's hopes for a resumption of travel from Cork and Shannon when the situation allows. I welcomed the confirmation by the CEO of Aer Lingus that there is no strategic intent to reduce connectivity at either Cork or Shannon while acknowledging that the restoration of services would depend on market circumstances.
We also met with the CEOs of Shannon Group and Cork Airport last week to discuss the situation there. It was reiterated at these meetings, the support for the airports and their important role in regional development. This includes plans to explore the potential of the Shannon Estuary in terms of regional economic development across transport and logistics, manufacturing, renewable energy and tourism, and develop a strategy to achieve this potential, with support from the Exchequer, as set out under the programme for Government commitments. For its part, Cork Airport has taken the decision to undertake an extensive runway project in the region of €35 million-€40 million. This investment falls within the public spending code. This includes the development of a new electrical substation. Taking a range of factors into consideration, including consultation with stakeholders, Cork Airport decided that the optimal approach for completing this project would be to close the airport for ten weeks, significantly shortening the disruptive effect of project delivery from a timescale of nine months if carried out at night-time hours only.
Similar engagements took place last week with trade unions and employer representative groups, in my capacity as chair of the aviation sub-group of the Labour Employer Economic Forum. This sub-group has been investigating the option of a specially extended wage subsidy scheme for the aviation sector, and this work will continue.
I assure the House that the Government is committed to supporting the aviation sector. We recognise the importance of providing clarity on the extent and duration of supports beyond the end of June. Throughout this pandemic, Government has provided a significant level of general supports to the economy, with at least €300 million provided to the aviation sector alone through wage supports, business grants, tax and rates alleviations, and low interest loans. The bulk of this support is in the form of wage subsidies, which were designed to maintain the link between employers and their workers. In addition to these broad supports, the Government secured almost €80 million in Exchequer funds to help passenger airports navigate this crisis in 2021. This is almost four times the usual State provision to airports and includes, for the first time, significant assistance to Cork and Shannon airports.
More than €32 million is being made available to these airports to help meet costs in the areas of safety and security and will contribute to the delivery of essential projects, such as the runway overlay project at Cork Airport. These airports will also benefit from a €20 million damages scheme that was approved by the EU in February, helping to compensate State airports for a portion of financial losses caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
This funding, which I expect to issue in the coming weeks, will give airports the flexibility to provide route incentives and airport charge rebates to stimulate recovery of lost connectivity this year. Aligned to this support is a five-year commitment to fund our smallest airports under a regional airports programme published in February of this year.
This year, with a budget of over €21 million, Donegal, Kerry and Knock will receive grant aid in the areas of safety, security and sustainability. This amount will also cover the costs associated with air service public service obligations, PSOs, between the capital and our most peripheral airports in Donegal and Kerry. In addition to this €21 million, a further €6 million was secured under an EU state aid scheme to help small airports address liquidity issues caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. As evidenced by these interventions, the Government understands that aviation is a critical lifeline to the regions and will consider what further supports may be needed to help all of our regional airports, including Cork and Shannon, as part of the upcoming Estimates process.
I am also alive to the hardship being experienced by those who depend on the aviation industry for their livelihoods, if not through job losses then through lower pay and income uncertainty. I can assure workers and all of those involved in the aviation industry that the Government will continue to support the industry and review the supports that may be required in the coming months. While we are not yet able to permit the restoration of international travel, work is under way to ensure that we are prepared. Until then, the Government will continue to provide supports to the aviation sector, as it does to all sectors of the economy.
In order to protect our population from the worst effects of the virus and to enable our healthcare system to continue to function and provide essential front-line services, it has been necessary for the Government to take unprecedented action on public health measures. I also refer to the remarks last week from the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, and concerns around the number of cases of the new Indian variant, suggesting that we must continue to be vigilant and maintain public health measures.
As we are now seeing, international travel is a route for the potential seeding of new Covid-19 cases and variants of concern while we persevere in managing community transmission. Mandatory hotel quarantine and PCR testing for international travel are among a suite of public health measures designed to mitigate this risk. Unfortunately, the impact is to the detriment of aviation and related economic sectors.
As a society, we have been rewarded for our efforts over the past few months in that we are now in a position to reopen our economy with some degree of caution. However, it is apparent, and this has been acknowledged in discussions with those employed in the aviation sector and their representative bodies, that the aviation sector will be one of the last sectors of the economy to take those initial steps of reopening.
The Minister and I have, over the past 15 months, engaged with aviation industry representatives and the National Civil Aviation Development Forum. Last month, this group developed an aviation restart plan it believes will best provide for the restart and recovery of the aviation sector in Ireland. It includes the determination of the conditions, vaccination levels and epidemiological thresholds that allow for the de-escalation of public health measures relating to international travel. This will include a stepping down of mandatory quarantine, testing requirements and the advice against non-essential travel. It will also include clear communication of the Government's strategy for the lifting of these restrictions towards a targeted reopening at the appropriate time, a clear commitment to the implementation of the EU digital green certificate for vaccinated, tested and recovered persons as a means to free movement of EU citizens, travel within the common travel area, CTA, with the UK and between Ireland and certain third countries, in particular the United States, and the consideration of a pilot for antigen testing to replace PCR tests for international travel.
I welcomed the recent aviation restart plan produced by the aviation industry participants in the National Civil Aviation Development Forum last month. I want to acknowledge the collaborative and constructive approach of the aviation industry representatives in working through the development of the proposals in the report. The report raises a number of issues for consideration in the context of the development of the Government's roadmap for reopening international travel. Proposals regarding the introduction of EU vaccine certificates will form a central plank of the Government's plan for recovery of the sector. I have also impressed on the industry the need to get visit visibility of how key stakeholders will ramp up operations incrementally as restrictions ease, while ensuring agreed public health and safety measures remain in effect.
While acknowledging the primacy of the protection of public health, there is clearly an increasing need for a strategy for international travel that can serve as a basis to protect existing jobs, insofar as is possible, and to plan for the re-commencement of operations as soon as is practicably possible. I again thank the House for the opportunity to address it and look forward to hearing the views of Deputies on this important matter.
I very much welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate on international travel. For the first time in almost a year and a half there is light at the end of the tunnel, and that is very welcome. The successful vaccination roll out to date in Ireland, Britain, across Europe and the United States has radically changed the outlook for international travel in a way that we all hoped it would.
As my party's spokesperson on transport and a Deputy representing the constituency of Meath East, I am very familiar with the devastating impact Covid-19 has had on the sector and its workers. I have been in touch with hundreds of those workers individually, and their representatives, over the past 14 months. They have had hours and pay cut and hundreds of jobs have been permanently lost. Pilots demonstrated yesterday and are demonstrating again today. Tomorrow, the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications will hear from cabin crew. They are frustrated with the Covid restrictions and fear for their future. They are equally frustrated with the lack of clarity from Government and the lack of a plan and details on the reopening of international travel, and when and how it will happen.
The lack of clarity and planning and always being behind, reacting and on the back foot is a constant feature of the Government's approach to international travel. Since the outset of the pandemic, Sinn Féin's position has been absolutely clear. We called for robust checks and controls at our ports and airports, including pre-departure and post-arrival testing, 100% follow-up and a support package for workers and the industry to protect jobs and strategic connectivity.
Last May, Sinn Féin called for temperature screening at airports, mandatory passenger locator forms, 100% follow-up and an all-Ireland approach. In June, we again called for this and for a traffic light system and international travel based on Covid risk profiles. In July we called for mandatory PCR testing. In September, when representatives from NPHET attended a meeting of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications, I called for antigen testing to be rolled out as an improvement on the voluntary and expensive PCR testing regime.
The Government did not do any of that. Instead, for the entirety of 2020 there was a complete failure by Government to do anything. Month after month we heard about passenger locator forms follow-up. The figures for this were 6%, 8% and 18%, which was, I understand, the highest rate recorded. It is incredible to think about that. We did not introduce mandatory testing for international travel until we were reporting 8,000 cases a day.
The failure on the part of the Government to implement proper safety checks and protocols at our ports of entry to show that international travel could happen safely led to a total breakdown in public confidence in international travel. With that track record, a Government at sea, public confidence on the floor, 8,000 cases a day and clear public health advice, the introduction of mandatory hotel quarantine was an inevitable and necessary measure at a time when we could not move 2 km from home, the vaccine roll-out had barely started and variants of concern were ravaging South Africa, Brazil and the UK.
ICUs were eating into surge capacity. As a temporary measure, a circuit breaker, that is, mandatory hotel quarantine, was necessary. It should have been matched with funding to protect jobs and strategic connectivity. Last week, the Minister and the Minister of State indicated that by the end of June the sector will have received €300 million in supports. At the weekend, that figure became €500 million. Even at that, it does not compare well with other countries. Who bears the brunt? Workers bear the brunt, particularly those who lost their jobs. Customers, who are waiting for refunds and vouchers or who lost money because airlines flew empty planes, also bear the brunt. The Government turned a blind eye to that.
From its lowest ebb, the sector is again looking to the Government. The safe return to international travel will have to be carefully planned and managed. No one wants to risk the gains and huge sacrifices we have made in recent months. It might be expecting too much from a Government that has failed at every turn to put the systems in place and build confidence in them, but there is reason to be hopeful.
Vaccines have changed everything and have presented us with opportunities. Data sharing will continue to be essential. The digital Covid-19 certificate will provide an opportunity in this regard. It is a single platform with Covid-19 status, vaccine, antibodies and negative tests. This can enable a safe return to international travel but we still do not know how or when it will be implemented here. There is speculation that there are IT delays. I ask the Minister and the Minister of State to address those concerns and ensure that we are ready. We also need to share data, North and South. There has been considerable Government resistance in this regard.
Testing will continue to be essential. The Minister and the Minister of State need to listen to the Government's chief scientific adviser. Professor Mark Ferguson appeared before the transport committee a few weeks ago and outlined the role antigen testing can play in the safe reopening of international travel. He pointed to international research in Britain, Italy and the United States. PCR testing is prohibitively expensive, is done 72 hours pre-departure and on its own, from a public health perspective, is limited. According to Professor Ferguson, the Government's chief scientific adviser, serial antigen testing, pre-departure and post-arrival in the context of continuing vaccine roll-out, can potentially replace the need for a PCR test and quarantine at home.
The transport committee and, as the Minister of State indicated, the National Civil Aviation Forum have been calling on the Government to pilot this. I ask the Minister of State to see that this happens. The fact that vaccine roll-out is most advanced in Britain, the United States and the EU, the places people from Ireland travel to and from most, offers an opportunity. We have to be continually mindful of public health advice and the patterns of Covid-19 spread. We also have to mindful of the potential pitfalls and, in particular, variants of concern. With the right systems in place, however, we can safely extract ourselves from the current restrictions, including home and hotel quarantine, as we all hoped and always intended.
This Government has always been on the back foot when it comes to international travel. On Friday, the hundreds of thousands of workers in the sector and related sectors will want to see a clear plan on how the systems will work and when they will come into effect. It is the least they deserve.
The aviation sector has been decimated by this pandemic. Workers in the sector are on their knees. They are on reduced hours and pay, with some are in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and others the employment wage subsidy scheme, while many have been accessing jobseeker's benefit and short-term work supports. Others have suffered the loss of their jobs.
Last week, we heard the devastating announcement by Aer Lingus regarding base closures. More than 140,000 jobs depend on us getting this right and ensuring that the sector can come through this crisis, but that means the Minister and the Government need to stop the hands-off approach they have taken to date. Ours is an island nation. To get on or off this island, we have to travel by plane or boat, but the Minister and the Government have approached the crisis in the aviation sector as though we do not need the sector. They have approached it as though we could cycle to Berlin, Melbourne, Cape Town or London. Without our connectivity, we are lost. A core message this Government needs to hear is that our connectivity must be protected. Connectivity and jobs have to be front and centre. My colleague, Sinn Féin's transport spokesperson, Teachta O’Rourke, and I are blue in the face telling the Government that we need a survival and recovery plan for the aviation sector.
From the outset of the pandemic, workers and unions in the sector have called for two things, namely, supports and a plan. The supports for workers, airlines and airports are a fraction of what is needed, based on international comparisons. Countries in Europe which are connected by rail and road have invested more in their aviation sector than we have, even though we are an island on the edge of the Atlantic. The fact there have been no conditions for the protection of jobs and strategic connectivity is a disgrace.
Last week, the Minister came in and reeled off figures and schemes to us and claimed that the aviation industry should be happy with what it has got. He was just listing the supports which also exist for other sectors. The reality is that the aviation sector is unique. It has been hit much harder than other sectors and needs unique supports and a unique recovery plan. That recovery plan must include antigen testing and the digital green certificate and its quick adoption.
We need a roadmap out of this situation because, at the least, that will give Aer Lingus and other airlines, confidence they will be able to retain bases because business will be coming back. The Minister has not been giving the airlines that confidence. In fact, many have claimed that the Government does the opposite of giving confidence to the aviation sector. From talking to them, I know that people in the sector are deeply disappointed by the Government's hands-off attitude. They do not believe that the Minister in charge is committed to aviation. This Government has to step up to the plate and demonstrate that commitment through a strategic recovery plan and the necessary supports.
For the avoidance of doubt, Sinn Féin vigorously opposed the privatisation of Aer Lingus in 2015 by Fine Gael and the Labour Party. The workers in Aer Lingus have continuously been let down by successive governments. Fianna Fáil, the Green Party, Fine Gael and the Labour Party were all party to the sell-off of Aer Lingus at different points. We warned at the time the State not owning a share in this vital airline would be bad for workers and the maintenance of connectivity. Unfortunately, that decision has left the Government severely weakened in its current position, which is becoming obvious.
If Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party do not produce a recovery plan soon and if they do not get it right, there will be even greater damage to the sector. I am asking the Minister to engage proactively with the airlines and the aviation sector as a whole and to speak with the trade unions, including the Irish Air Line Pilots Association, IALPA, SIPTU, Fórsa and all the unions involved and with the people involved in Recover Irish Aviation about the scale, breadth, depth and nature of the plan needed to help the sector recover.
Mandatory hotel quarantine and PCR testing are and were essential tools to prevent the importation of new and existing strains of the virus. The public health advice on both has been clear for the best part of a year. As my colleague, Deputy O'Rourke, it was something the Government came late to the table with, despite not only the public health experts in Government and those advising Government, but those outside of Government, asking the Government to move much quicker in this area.
Nobody wants any public health measures to be in place any longer than necessary. The vaccine is being rolled out. The more progressive it is and the faster and more efficient it has become and, I hope, will continue to become, presents us opportunities to start looking at easing restrictions. We are seeing that already in different sectors. We have to plan for a safe reopening of aviation travel and the wider tourist potential as well.
We do not want a situation in which some parts of Europe are open for business, in terms of tourism, and this State is left behind and not prepared. It is prudent we look at this as a Europe-wide initiative, but we also have to keep our autonomy on decisions we need to make to protect this State against new variants and to ensure the restrictions which are beginning to be eased and will continue to be eased in June and July when further easing of restrictions will happen. They to be jealously protected and guarded.
We cannot take any chances and do anything which would put reopenings in the time ahead at risk. They have to be our number one priority, because it means so much to people there is some level of normality returning. All the businesses which opened last week and the people who went back to work after a long time period out of work, will want that to be continued. We hope that it is, in terms of the restrictions we ease, and that we will not go back to any of those restrictions being in place again.
In that context, we are having a debate on international travel. Mandatory quarantine should not be in place for a minute longer than necessary. I welcome and my party supported, the EU-wide Covid-19 certificate at European Union level. It makes sense to have a single application which pulls together all the Covid-19 related testing and the vaccine for individuals. I also welcome this will be in both digital and paper format. That is important as well.
I am taking it that it will be up to each member state to decide what element of the testing or vaccine will be required to prevent people from having to quarantine in a hotel and on any other measures in place.
It remains to be seen how that is going to work out in this State and what the Government will do. What is certain is that whatever happens, the aviation sector will continue to be deeply affected in the months and years ahead. The sector needs to be supported, which means continuing to support airlines to make sure they stay afloat, but this also has to be about protecting jobs. When funding is being made available through taxpayers' money, which is needed to shore up and protect the aviation sector and airlines, the quid pro quomust be that those airlines protect jobs. We cannot be providing taxpayers' money to shore them up on the one hand and then have major job losses on the other. That is not a quid pro quoand would not be in the best interests of the people of this State.
I am sharing time with Deputy Sherlock. Without wanting to get ahead of ourselves, I am taking to my feet in a debate on aviation where it genuinely feels as though there is some light at the end of the tunnel. The EU digital Covid certificate is that light. I am somewhat encouraged by the speech of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Taoiseach's statement earlier today, as reported in the media, that it is full steam ahead for the EU digital Covid certificate. This is where the rubber meets the runway as regards whether or not aviation will recover. If we do not get this right as a country and implement it as soon as is practicable, in a manner that protects public health, then any chance our aviation sector has of a full recovery will be lost. The Government is finally getting it and is willing to push this issue as quickly as possible. I have worked with my colleague Deputy Sherlock on this matter and we do not see any obvious reason this certificate cannot be introduced as soon as possible. There are variants of concern but we have measures in place to catch and control them. We have testing at a level that we did not have a year ago, as well as mandatory hotel quarantine, which will be amended and shifted towards being a method for tackling variants and a measure of last resort. That is encouraging as well. There should not be any IT issues with this roll-out. Willie Walsh of the International Air Transport Association, IATA, gave a presentation to the transport committee last week in which he said that an awful lot of work has been done by the industry to ensure that the IT systems are up to where they need to be to deliver this. That is encouraging.
We ask that the principles of the EU digital Covid certificate also be applied to the common travel area and to areas in which vaccination levels are high, such as North America. There are 128 million fully vaccinated people in the United States at the moment - not just people with one shot but fully vaccinated - and there are 30 million people fully vaccinated in the UK. We have those data. Rapid antigen testing must play a role here. Professor Mark Ferguson, the chief scientific adviser to the Government, has delivered a strong report on the use of rapid antigen testing. That must play a role, particularly for people returning to Ireland. It is full steam ahead. We will be keeping the pressure on the Government but hopefully the penny is finally dropping.
There are workers outside the House today representing pilots. Workers in Shannon and Cork airports have lost their jobs. Hopefully those jobs can be recovered but there is an awful lot of despair and we must acknowledge that and ensure that any work that can be done to recover those jobs is done as quickly as possible. It is lamentable that the supports given by this Government to the aviation industry were not contingent on protecting jobs and job conditions, and there will be no forgiveness for that. That is something the Government will never be able to run away from.
I note the submission to the Taoiseach by the Irish Air Line Pilots' Association. Those pilots are outside this building today and we stand in solidarity with them. They refer to four pillars in their correspondence to the Taoiseach: travel within the common travel area of Ireland and the UK; travel within the European Union; travel between Ireland, the EU and the United States of America; and the application of rapid antigen testing inbound to Ireland to safely facilitate the other three pillars. In her statement to the House, the Minister of State said "PCR testing for international travel [is] among a suite of public health measures designed to mitigate this risk". Last week I told the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, that we needed to have an honest debate about the distinction between PCR testing and antigen testing and I reiterate that. We need to have an honest, reasoned and scientific debate about the difference between PCR testing and antigen testing. If the PCR test becomes the prerequisite for the digital green certificate and if the benchmarks are that people have to be vaccinated, tested and recovered, I fear that, subject to a reasoned and rational scientific debate of this House, many families will be excluded from travel throughout either the European Union or elsewhere. The issue of antigen testing has to be part of the debate.
I have noted the comments from our colleagues in Sinn Féin about the privatisation of Aer Lingus. If Sinn Féin is proposing the re-nationalisation of the airline, we would all be very happy to hear whatever proposals it might have on that issue. For now, we want to speak for Aer Lingus families and for families from any airline. There are families in Cork at the moment who are relying wholly on payments from the Department of Social Protection and because of the nature of their work and how their hours are structured annually, they are now falling off a cliff. They are getting no more money from the Department and we need to get them back to work.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton. I am glad that the Minister is looking at rolling out the digital green certificate as quickly as he can. He spoke in the context of people being vaccinated. However, he qualified that by stating "the epidemiological conditions, including status of variants of concern, must also be favourable for international travel to return, and for the current advice against non-essential travel to be lifted within Europe and with third countries". The question is what will decide that and what the metrics around that are. I principally want to speak about Shannon Airport. We heard the shocking news last week that Aer Lingus will be closing its cabin crew base for 81 staff at Shannon Airport, which it announced prior to any international plan from the Government. That has huge implications for the airport, the workers and their families. We passed the pilots while coming in here and they want certainty.
I will ask three things of the Minister. First, I ask that the reopening plan deal with the common travel area and that it coincides with the digital green certificate coming on stream on 1 July. I appreciate that there are variants but we need to move away from a binary model that is heavy on quarantine and towards a risk-based model. We need some form of quarantine but it should be very limited and it should not be a binary decision. Second, I understand that Aer Lingus, like many airlines, is going through cash and will burn more of it when it gets going again.
In respect of the Minister's discussions with Aer Lingus, any funding which comes from the State must be accompanied by preconditions in respect of the base at Shannon Airport and the retention of workers there. We must also ensure that we retain connectivity through the flights to and landing slots at Heathrow Airport. In addition, transatlantic flights are vital for us. Therefore, what I want to hear regarding the Minister's discussions with Aer Lingus is that he has got commitments from the airline concerning the cabin crew, connectivity through Heathrow and transatlantic flights. There must be certainty in that regard because of the impact of Shannon Airport on our region. The stakes are very high along the western seaboard.
We have many multinational companies, a huge reliance on tourism and Shannon Airport is the key economic driver, and central to all that is Aer Lingus. Therefore, what I want to see today are details regarding the reopening plans which will be announced on 1 July, and from that period onwards. Included in those plans should be the resumption of Aer Lingus flights, as quickly as possible, from Shannon Airport to Heathrow Airport, as well as transatlantic flights. Equally, any funds provided by the State to the airline, which it will need, must be accompanied by a quid pro quo, as I have set out.
We are an island nation and not everything ends at the Red Cow. A great deal happens outside Dublin. We want to ensure that can all continue, and exponentially. If we do not have connectivity in the mid-west via Aer Lingus flights to Heathrow Airport, our transatlantic flights and our cabin crew base in Shannon Airport, we will be at a major disadvantage and operating with one arm behind our back. We are at a critical juncture and I ask the Minister to get those commitments from Aer Lingus in respect of any funding provided.
On the way into the Dáil, I met with a group of airline pilots from Recover Irish Aviation, all from Aer Lingus. They do not belong on a street corner protesting, but back in our skies. The announcements scheduled to be made this week, and especially on Friday, will be key in giving those pilots and the whole sector the hope desperately yearned for. We must see several developments this Friday and in that regard I address my remarks to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton. It is crucial that we see a restoration of the Common Travel Area with the UK. It makes very little sense for Ireland, a country with more than 300 border crossings with the UK, to have any kind of restrictive regime in respect of travel to and from the UK. That aspect must be addressed immediately, with no delays until July or August before that is made possible and travel is fully reconnected.
There is also a need to wind back on mandatory hotel quarantine, MHQ. Echoing what a previous speaker said, yes, there are wild and very aggressive variants of Covid-19 extant which pose a real health risk and mandatory hotel quarantine should be reserved for travellers from the countries where those variants are coming from. It should not, however, be applied to the general European Union block, the United States or countries which have a high vaccination level compared to us. We must enable entry from those countries without any huge kerfuffle. The reality is that mandatory hotel quarantine had high relevance back in January. Looking at Friday, 8 January, 8,248 cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in Ireland. However, yesterday, we had 345 cases confirmed. The two instances are incomparable and there should be no strict mandatory hotel quarantine regime in future. It should only be used to deal with the variants which pose an acute risk to our country.
Regarding vaccinated passengers from the United States, we should also allow those people to enter Ireland without any great restriction. It is a diplomatic insult, in fact, to deny easy entry and exit for those passengers. We must regularise that aspect quickly. The digital green certificate requires a lead-in period of approximately five weeks. We are also hearing from pilots and cabin crew that their sector will need a five-week lead-in period as well. It is obvious that these two things should align. We should see the restoration of aviation around the first or second week of July, with both lead-in periods elided.
I am glad that Sinn Féin is fully supporting the digital green certificate. On 1 April, the party voted against a proposal to fast-track this initiative in the European Parliament. Here in the Dáil, on 23 February, it also put forward amendments to Bills which would have brought extensions to mandatory hotel quarantine to include many more countries. There is a place for rapid antigen testing as well and I have been making this point at the transport committee to Professor Mark Ferguson, who has been advising the Government on this matter for many months. I suggested we should trial this method on a route during this interim period of four to five weeks until the digital green certificate is in place. It could, perhaps, be tested on a route from Dublin to the UK. It is €5 for a rapid antigen test and €150 for a PCR test.
Turning to Shannon Airport, last week we heard a devastating announcement for our region, which lives and dies on foot of what happens with the airport. It is the catalyst for all economic activity. Aer Lingus seized on an opportunity to close its cabin crew base at Shannon, which has operated without stoppages or breaks since 1958. The airline is again looking to the Government for funding from the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, and a financial capital injection. It is crucial and imperative that we attach some conditionality to that funding, relating to key connectivity from Shannon Airport and other Irish airports. There must be commitments to the workers of Aer Lingus and its base at Shannon. In future, we must see a stimulus package specifically for the aviation and tourism sectors. The two areas are interlinked and they will be two of the last sectors to recover fully from the Covid-19 crisis. Along with colleagues in Government, I am drafting a range of policies that we will bring to the Minister next week. We ask for a favourable ear in that regard, because the sector desperately needs these policies and is crying out for them.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate. As an island nation, international travel is of enormous importance for business and tourism. The aviation sector underpins 140,000 jobs, as does the tourism sector, on which also depend hundreds of thousands of jobs. Shannon Airport adds €3.6 billion to the GDP of our country and supports 43,700 jobs. The footprint of aviation-related companies in the Shannon area is very strong. We have aviation-related companies operating in the areas of leasing and maintenance, repair and overhaul, MRO. The devastating announcement last week from Aer Lingus concerning the shutting of its Shannon cabin crew base permanently came as a thunderbolt. It will have massive repercussions for the mid-west region and for Shannon. It is critical that the Government intervenes in this situation.
Aer Lingus is back at the table and looking for money and it is important that the State provides that money on the basis that the key strategic routes from Shannon to Heathrow, New York and Boston are maintained. It is also vital that we secure the Aer Lingus cabin crew base at Shannon Airport and the jobs of those workers as part of this deal. In addition, the Shannon-Heathrow slots must be secured for at least a decade as well. We can look at the actions of other governments across the globe, which have invested billions in supporting their aviation companies. In the case of Lufthansa, the German Government stepped up to the plate and provided investment, as did the Italian Government in respect of Alitalia. We must follow suit.
Regarding international travel, the Government has dragged its feet in publishing a plan. It is welcome news that this plan will be finally published on Friday. It is important that that statement deals with the harmonisation of travel in respect of the Common Travel Area between the UK and Ireland. We must fully implement the provisions of the European Commission's digital green certificate and do it in time. It is also important that we remove any restrictions on quarantine requirements concerning travel from the United States. That is an important market for us. I also support the use of antigen testing. Again, we are behind the curve in this regard. In the United Kingdom, the United States and across Europe, rapid antigen testing is widely used in societies and communities as well as in aviation. It is important that we embrace that method and take on board the scientific evidence and the report of Professor Mark Ferguson.
The discussion today takes place against the backdrop of the announcement last week of the job cuts by Aer Lingus at its base in Shannon. The Minister of State, in words that probably should not have been said, noted that it was very regrettable. The axing of 120 jobs by Aer Lingus at its base in Shannon is much more than that. It is a very bitter blow to the mid-west region and the wider community there. It is particularly devastating to the workers and their families. Many aviation staff have been receiving the state income supplements for the last 14 months and now they are also facing job losses. While these job losses are deeply disappointing, when one considers how this Government has handled aviation generally, they are hardly surprising.
I met the workers over a year ago. They still have no idea as to what Shannon will be like after we emerge from the pandemic. In respect of the aviation industry, the Government response has been slow and insufficient and the Government has been too reactive. The key issue concerns connectivity around the airport. The flights out of Shannon Airport into Heathrow, Boston and New York must continue and the jobs of the workers in Shannon and the wider region need to be retained. While responsibility for the job losses lies with Aer Lingus, it clear that the Government aviation policy, or lack of one, has contributed to the uncertainty and frustrations faced by aviation workers. Indeed, the Irish Air Line Pilots Association has stated that lay-offs were a direct result of Government policy and its continued inaction on aviation. Fórsa, the cabin crews' trade union, added that the losses might have been avoided if the Government had moved faster to support aviation and had given a clear indication of when and how air travel would resume - an indication that we still have not received from the Minister for Transport.
I worked in the industry for 19 years. I know exactly how difficult it is to retain routes. When we lose them, they are lost. What is going on in aviation in this State is not some new crisis that has arisen unexpectedly. The aviation industry has been in crisis for over a year. Job losses, grounded operations and a lack of guidelines as to when and how the industry can reopen have led us to this point. What has the Minister done? Very little, it seems. Unfortunately, to date the Minister for Transport's contribution on aviation would not leave one optimistic for the future. He was clearly asleep at the wheel on this. Shannon Airport is literally dying in front of us. The Minister must intervene on the matter.
I wish to use my time to focus on Shannon Airport. It is the international airport with the longest runway in the country and was first to establish a sensory room, two years ahead of Dublin Airport.
Shannon Airport and its survival is vital to my home county of Clare and the mid-west region. Therefore, the importance of its survival post Covid cannot, and should not, be underestimated. I have attended many meetings in the past week. I have spoken to many of the workers. They are on their knees. They do not have a return-to-work date as yet so they cannot avail of the mortgage relief scheme. The workers and their families are suffering financially, emotionally and mentally, as they do not know what will happen from one week to the next.
We now know with certainty that the separation of Shannon Airport from the Dublin Airport Authority by Government has failed drastically. The proof showed itself in the Covid-19 pandemic. We in Sinn Féin, along with the trade unions, opposed separation at the time. We vigorously opposed the privatisation of Aer Lingus in 2015 under Fine Gael and the Labour Party. We argued that it would cost jobs in the long run.
The most recent announcement of Aer Lingus was another blow to the region, following a string of disappointing updates and on top of the hands-off approach of the Minister. The Minister knows that the airport is managed by a private company, Shannon Group. He assured me, in the response to a parliamentary question in July 2020, that he would oversee a review of the Shannon Group. To date we have not received an update on this, there has been no conclusion and no headway has been made. That begs the question, what is the Minister waiting for? It does not spell confidence in the airport or the region. We have heard that the Government is mooting regeneration and balanced regional development. This was an ideal opportunity to put that narrative into action.
There is also the situation around the appointment of the chairperson of Shannon Group and the debacle that ensued then, which was ultimately an embarrassment. A chairperson has yet to be appointed. Why is this the case? Why has Shannon Airport had to wait in the dark for so long? Where is the attention that the airport so rightfully deserves, and more importantly, which its staff and workers deserve, particularly after having endured the past 14 months of hardship?
There is no long-term strategy. Successive Governments have been short-sighted and have failed to produce a national aviation plan, policy or authority. Some 96% of flights leave from Dublin Airport, which is nonsensical. Shannon Airport brought in €3.6 billion to the GDP pre-Covid. It also bolsters 43,7000 jobs in the region. I implore the Minister to deliver the much-needed and much-talked about plan for recovery, as well as the necessary support and to ensure that Shannon Airport is brought back better.
At the outset, I wish to state that in respect of the contributions of the Minister and the Minister for State, it would be reasonable for the Government to outline its position on the use of rapid antigen testing. It was namechecked by one of the Ministers. At this point, given its importance in respect of the reopening of our aviation industry, it would be reasonable for the Government to provide a detailed position and explanation on this issue. It is not a new proposal. There is plenty of evidence around it. It is being used in other countries and jurisdictions. If the Government is of the view that it should not be used here and if there is some sort of Irish exceptionalism, we should hear the rationale behind it. A simple namecheck of it as this point is highly insufficient.
On the issue of the EU digital green certificate, we need to hear directly from the Ministers if there are any capacity or IT issues with it. There have been media reports to that effect. We need to know if there is anything that will delay the implementation of the certificates on an IT or a logistical basis. If there is, what resources are being put in place to deal with, address and prioritise it, given how important it is for the reopening of the aviation sector? We, together with the thousands of families working in the aviation industry and the supporting industries, deserve clear explanations, information and answers from the Ministers and the Government on that issue.
I must say that I am not comfortable with how the Minister of State addressed the issue of job losses in Shannon Airport. In her comments, she acknowledged them and stated that they were regrettable, then attempted to justify and normalise them by listing off some other parts of Europe where there have also been job losses in the aviation sector. That is not a sufficient response from Government or Ministers. The Minister of State should not comment as if the Government is just a bystander or observer in this, when in fact, Government is setting policy and should be playing a much more active, hands-on role in protecting our connectivity and our jobs in this crucial industry. I ask the Government to look at that issue.
We need certainty and clarity on this issue. It has been most unhelpful over the last period that there have been such contradictory statements made by various Ministers. The contradictions are so bad in respect of aviation and the uncertainty is so bad in terms of commentary, that some Ministers even contradict themselves within days of making public comments. They may not realise the effect that this has on the industry, on those working in it and the people whose livelihoods depend on it. It creates huge uncertainty and stress. Like many other Deputies here, I have been contacted by numerous constituents. It is common, for example, for there to be two members of a household whose income is entirely reliant on the industry. Pilots are protesting outside the building today. They were here yesterday and they will be here during the week again. It is not just the pilots and cabin crew who are affected. There is a huge number of support staff members who are involved from the moment that someone enters an airport to the time when they touch down at their destination airport. All of those jobs and roles are skilled jobs. All of them are at risk.
What has happened in Shannon should be the final wake-up call to the Government that this hands-off approach is not sufficient and the aviation industry needs all the support that we can give it. In comparison with other European countries, sadly, we have been very far behind in terms of the level of support we have provided. It is welcome that the Minister has spoken about the need to build back better in terms of sustainability. I agree with him and support that. However, we also need to build back better in respect of jobs and connectivity. Regional connectivity must be at the heart of that. We must ensure that it is part of the backbone of the recovery in the aviation sector.
Looking at the supports provided in other countries, €10 billion was provided to Lufthansa, €7 billion was given to Air France and €1.2 billion was provided to TAP Air Portugal. It is clear that the Government's support here has been paltry in comparison. More than €43 billion has been provided in government supports across Europe for aviation and airlines. The contribution in Ireland has been much smaller.
Given that this is an island nation, one would think that the support for workers in aviation and in airlines would be greater but, given the comments that have been made and the lack of action so far, I do not believe that this is fully grasped yet at senior level. Hopefully, we will get certainty in the announcements on Friday.
It is important that all the recommendations from the aviation task force recovery report last year are implemented. In addition, when certainty is given on Friday, and I hope it will be, that would be the time for the task force to be urgently reconvened to help map out a long-term plan to support the sector. That is very important. Our supports for the sector must be about sustainability, regional connectivity and the role the aviation sector can play as the backbone for our connectivity, economy and society, and ensuring it reopens safely for both passengers and staff. The Government has said it will not have sector-specific income supports, but it has to look at aviation. Some people working in that sector have been far more badly hit and for much longer in terms of income. Some sector-specific supports on the income side there should be considered.
This is an incredibly important opportunity to speak before some very important decisions are taken by the Government with regard to aviation and international travel in respect of Ireland. First, as the Fianna Fáil spokesperson on transport, I have had the privilege of working alongside many people working in aviation, including ground crew in airports, airport management, airport employees working in the fire brigade and people involved in aircraft maintenance. Today, I met many of the pilots who are protesting outside Leinster House. I have stood with those people from the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in terms of the supports they require. Obviously, they have gone through extraordinary difficulties. That must be acknowledged.
I wish to make a few important points in this area to the Minister and Minister of State. First, the implementation of the digital green certificate is very good news for aviation, but we must ensure the families who are travelling with children who are not vaccinated have clear protocols in place for how that will be possible. In addition, I strongly encourage the Government to take up the issue of antigen testing with NPHET. The Government prioritised the research for Professor Mark Ferguson's report on the benefit analysis of antigen testing, but we have yet to see serious and meaningful action in that regard. I am hopeful that the Government will examine that area this week.
Of course, many more supports will be required over the next number of weeks. I have to say it was quite difficult to listen to the Member from the Social Democrats who spoke before me talking about the incoherent messaging of the Government on Covid-19. They have mastered that art in their own right. It is very important that every political party would get behind the aviation workers. That is required if we want to get the sector back up and running.
There is a final point I wish to emphasise to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton. The importance of the transatlantic connection to our economy cannot be understated. Some 160,000 people in this country are employed directly through foreign direct investment by US companies and companies from North America. It is absolutely imperative that the Government gives recognition to that fact and allows transatlantic travel to resume as quickly as possible by working with the US Government and its State Department. I have fleshed out some information from the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney. His answers were particularly disappointing in terms of the current level of engagement he has with his US counterparts with regard to reopening transatlantic travel. That is a key requirement, and we should be seeking to do it in late July or August, at the latest. Hopefully, it can be back up and running by the autumn. It is imperative that this would happen.
With regard to the funding going to our airports in CAPEX, capital expenditure, and continued OPEX, operating expenditure, supports, that is critical to ensure our airports can continue to operate at a competitive level. I will finish on that point, and I hope those points will be taken on board.
It is by dint of an extraordinary national endeavour that we are having a debate here today that has a degree of cautious optimism in the context of Covid-19. The possibility raised in the speech of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, of an earlier release from the restrictions that currently apply to international travel, even ahead of the introduction of the digital green certificate, is very welcome. As I understand it, the digital green certificate is a variation of either vaccination, a clear PCR test or a post confirmed Covid-19 case. That nails the issue of compulsory vaccination. There is also a requirement, however, to delineate clearly the extent to which a green certificate can be applied and to take steps to avoid mission creep, so it is not used to access other services. There are people who cannot be vaccinated, particularly young children and people with certain medical conditions.
Much has been said about connectivity and the Irish economy. Undoubtedly, it is critical, given our dependence on foreign direct investment, the numbers employed in that area, executives who need to travel internationally and our tourism industry. Like most Members who have contributed, we have engaged with myriad people who work in the aviation sector, such as direct employees of airlines, cabin crew and pilots and the other professions associated with it. What they need now is clarity in respect of a plan for reopening. That is evident. I would like to have seen more detail from Ministers today in that regard, but the commitment to ongoing engagement as we cautiously re-engage with international travel is very important.
It is difficult to take the hypocrisy of those who are critical of the Government's approach. Those who opposed a digital green certificate at European level, who were the most ardent advocates of hotel quarantining and more countries being added to the quarantine list and who pilloried anybody who was seen to travel through an international airport are now jumping up and down today and criticising the Government. The Government's response has been predicated on our position in terms of Covid-19 cases.
On the point about reopening and cautious optimism, and I say this advisedly as I am an admirer of NPHET and its advice generally that has got us to this position, NPHET's advice needs to be critically and forensically examined in respect of the reopening of the hospitality sector. It makes no sense to be enabled to dine in a hotel dining room, but not in a restaurant.
This is an important debate and I wish to articulate the views of people in my constituency who have been communicating with me. Obviously, airline staff, pilots and their families are very concerned, but they all recognise, as I do, that health is the most important thing here and it is important that we get it right. The advice of NPHET, which is the Holy Grail in the context of the voice that the Government must listen to above all, must be considered and given the greatest weight.
That said, an American rang me the other day. He happens to be my brother and has a business. He operates in Ireland and in America. He made the point that he has received full vaccination and has gone through the waiting period thereafter. Then he read in the newspaper that citizens from Kuwait, Mongolia, Iran and Puerto Rico can fly into Ireland without mandatory quarantining, yet Americans like him cannot. There is something significantly wrong here. I hope that when the Government addresses this issue on Friday it will listen carefully to the business people and family members who want to come to Ireland. The longer we wait, the longer will be the delay in their business and other decisions. In addition, there are people who have families in the United Kingdom, whom they have not seen for over a year in many cases. There is a massive, pent-up demand in my constituency among people who have relatives in the UK to be able to travel there or for their relatives to be able to travel here. It is a very important issue and I hope the Government will address it. It does not make sense that one can fly into Belfast from the UK and travel here, but one cannot do the opposite.
However, I welcome the progress that is being made. I particularly welcome the concept of the European digital green certificate. It will help many families, make a lot of decisions easier and make business owners and families happier as a result.
I agree with Deputy Creed that, listening to this debate, it is hard to believe that this is the same Opposition which was demanding zero Covid and total mandatory quarantine for every country. The reality is that we have the most restrictive travel regime in Europe. Non-essential travel is not permitted in any circumstance. Quarantine is required for 100% of the people flying into this country, albeit many of them can spend their quarantine in a home. That has a chilling impact on people who have to come here to do business. There is mandatory hotel quarantine for travellers from Belgium, Canada, France and the USA. All of those countries are close partners of ours, with which we do continuous business.
Massive progress has been made in removing the risk associated with the Covid virus. Hospitalisation is down by 95%. The 14-day average incidence rate is now less than 0.1% of the population. Half of our population has either been vaccinated or recovered from the virus. Three quarters of over-65s had been vaccinated two weeks ago. That removed over 92% of the risk of casualty from this virus. There is a significant need to rebalance the risk, pain and suffering, both economic and social, associated with the travel restrictions. It is important that Ministers look hard at this matter. Public health advisers are, of course, experts in public health but they are not experts in seeking to balance those very substantial economic, social and personal costs that people are suffering during the restrictions against the small risks that still remain.
We must be conscious of new variants but a balance must be struck in this debate. I have not understood who is doing that balancing, looking at those other costs that occur and balancing them against the risks. As we make progress, there must be a rebalancing. I urge Ministers to consider at the importance of the changes in travel for a small island economy, as many others have said. We must listen to Professor Mark Ferguson who has said that antigen testing has a place, certainly for frequent travellers.
The crisis that now faces our aviation sector is unprecedented and requires unprecedented action from the Government. Sinn Féin has been calling for a survival and recovery plan for months to protect workers, their families and the industry. These workers need help to pay their mortgages and look after their families. They do not need Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to play politics with their livelihoods. It must be remembered that Fianna Fáil privatised Aer Lingus in 2006 and the job was finished off by Fine Gael in 2015. Sinn Féin opposed privatisation at the time because we knew it would cost jobs in the long run.
More bad news has hit Cork in recent days as it was announced that 198 Aer Lingus jobs at Cork Airport will be temporarily lost for the period from September to late October or late November. These temporary job losses are bad news for workers and their families. The Government must ensure they are not lost permanently.
When Covid-19 restrictions are lifted, it is important that we have a strong aviation sector. That is critical and cannot be undermined. Connectivity is vital for somewhere like Cork as the area tries to be a reasonable counterbalance to Dublin to bring jobs into the region. The Minister has spent the past few weeks trying to play the blame game but the only people to blame here are those in government and the decision-makers at Cabinet who are not protecting workers' jobs. Instead of listening, this Government is blaming everyone else. It must take responsibility.
It has been unbelievable to hear Government backbenchers going on about Sinn Féin and the Opposition when, last May, the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, asked the Government to bring in mandatory hotel quarantine and it refused. It took the Government nine months to bring in mandatory quarantine. The crocodile tears from Government backbenchers about the aviation sector have also been unbelievable. They should not come in here and tell me about it but instead tell their party leaders and Ministers because they are the people who make the decisions. It is not on for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to try to play both sides.
Aviation affects us all because it has such an influence on industry, investment, leisure, people's holidays and so on. The people about whom we must be most concerned are the tens of thousands working in the industry. I have raised this issue with the Minister. There is a view among those workers that the response of the Government has been sluggish at best and has verged on the disinterested at times. As far back as last summer, I raised with the Minister in the Dáil my concerns over Cork Airport. We have written to the Minister to ask for a survival and recovery plan for the aviation sector and, as far back as last October, my colleague, Deputy O'Rourke, was active in urging the Minister to examine the role antigen testing can play in the aviation industry and in supporting its recovery. I hope we are no longer ignoring the major challenges that exist, that we will instead confront them and that a plan will come forward.
The reality is that it is going to take several years for aviation to recover. I think we need a clear statement to that effect from the Minister. My constituency includes Cork Airport, which employs more than 10,000 people, directly and indirectly, and many more are dependent on connected industries. I believe that Cork Airport needs a commitment of at least three years of extended capital expenditure and contributions towards operating expenses. It is going to take that kind of time to recover and I am sure the other airports are the same. That is my view on Cork Airport.
Nearly 200 Aer Lingus workers at Cork Airport have been told that they will be laid off for ten weeks at the end of this year. That is five pay packets those workers will be without. Workers, many of whom before this announcement were already under enormous pressure, are now unsure of what the future will be for them, whether the terms of their employment will continue and so on. The concern is that after ten weeks, they will be pressured into accepting reduced terms and conditions or will not be asked to return at all. Aer Lingus has received significant support from the Government through the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, and in other ways, including direct investment. I see no reason that the Government should not be putting pressure on Aer Lingus to keep these workers on, as it should and could do under the EWSS but is opting not to do on a financial basis. I have been in contact with Aer Lingus and the Minister should also make contact with the company to ask it to support those jobs. For the sake of ten weeks, and in the context of the crisis we are facing, it is only fair.
Much of the blame for this crisis can be laid at the door of the pandemic and the public health restrictions that ensued because people across the planet were forced not to fly and to maintain public health restrictions. In our case, much of the blame for the crisis can be laid at the Government's approach to support for the industry. We also believe that much of the blame for the crisis in aviation can be laid at the doors of employers, who slashed and burned employees' rights as a response to the crisis, with wholesale lay-offs, cuts and changes to employment contracts. Aer Lingus displayed what seemed like barely concealed contempt for workers. It seemed incapable of even filling out forms for basic social welfare applications so that workers could receive the correct benefits. It is also notable that many of the companies currently laying off workers, reworking and tearing up workers' contracts, posted massive and sustained profits in the years preceding the onset of Covid. Such companies had huge cash reserves and were still able to pay their CEOs massive bonuses while the crisis crippled the industry.
I take any statement from the Minister professing concern about those workers with a large dollop of salt. Some months ago, I asked the Minister, along with other transport ministers across the EU, to sign a simple petition calling for respect in social matters in aviation. It was a mild-mannered petition stating that all airlines should abide by employment standards and not use bogus self-employment contracts to undermine both workers and the tax take for the State. The Minister's reply was to the effect that the Government did not want to upset Ryanair and would not support decent employment rights across Europe.
It is scandalous that a Green Party Minister cannot even muster the enthusiasm that other aviation ministers across Europe have mustered.
Ultimately, we support aviation workers, their families and sensible public health measures that will make flights sensible and possible for all again. We do not, however, support prioritising an industry that cuts up the rights of workers and maintains the same unsustainable business model.
This is a very cynical debate. Some of the contributions from the Government-supporting Deputies are extremely cynical. They are painting themselves now as supporters and defenders of workers' rights under the guise of pushing for an end to mandatory hotel quarantine. If they are serious about supporting workers' rights, they should get the Government to step in now to guarantee jobs and terms and conditions, and to renationalise Aer Lingus to do so. The Government has the power to do that. It does not have to mess around with mandatory hotel quarantine or anything else. Defend the jobs, conditions and incomes of workers in the industry.
This is not the first attack on workers in aviation. They have been on the front line again and again since Covid-19 started. Some companies have taken advantage of the pandemic to try to restructure workers' conditions in the company's favour to have a more flexible workforce and so forth. Again, I did not hear Government Deputies speaking up for those workers.
Dublin Airport Authority, DAA, workers, for example, faced the so-called new ways of working, which was a tearing up of their existing conditions that was rammed through for most groups of workers under massive pressure, which they were effectively forced to accept. The maintenance workers who refused to accept this have had their pay and working time reduced by 40% since October because they stood up to the DAA. I salute those workers for continuing to fight.
I emphasise that I do not agree with lifting mandatory hotel quarantine. To do that now would be to court making the same mistakes that were made in December, with potentially disastrous results. Instead, we should be eliminating the outsourcing that goes with it. We should be placing it under the control and supervision of ordinary working people by running it as part of the public health service with supervision from civil liberties activists. We should not be scrapping it, however. It should, in fact, be extended to Britain. The Government must listen to the warnings about what will happen with the Indian variant and the danger it presents if we do not move now to introduce mandatory hotel quarantine for travellers from Britain.
Some 200 workers at Aer Lingus in Cork Airport will go to bed tonight fearful for the future of their jobs. Having been kept on the company books for the entire duration of the global pandemic, these workers have now been told that they will be laid off for a ten-week period between September and November when runway repairs are to be carried out.
These workers have been forced to live on a fraction of their wages for the duration of this pandemic. They now ask the following questions. If the Minister would care to listen instead of engaging in chats, he might hear the questions the workers are asking. After the sacrifices they have made, why are they not being kept on the books? Will all of them be rehired? If and when they are rehired, will they have the same wages and conditions?
I do not trust Aer Lingus on this matter. This is a company with a history of ruthlessly driving a race to the bottom. The workers' fears are justified, in my opinion. What action does the Minister intend to take to protect these workers?
I am a supporter of the renationalisation of Aer Lingus. There are other steps the Minister could take this side of September. If, for example, the Government is providing state aid, grant aid or an employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, to the company, it could and should be conditional on these workers being kept on the books.
I will conclude by saying it would be very much in the State's interest to do this as it will have to foot the bill for any lay-offs. My message is save jobs and protect wages and conditions at Aer Lingus. The Government must act.
I am very grateful for the opportunity to speak. I thank the Minister and the vast majority of Deputies who made such considered responses, although I was struck that Deputy Paul Murphy, who is leaving the Chamber, demanded mandatory hotel quarantine for Great Britain but made no mention of what the impact of Northern Ireland having an open border with Great Britain wold be. I question his cynicism in placing ideology at the heart of this debate when the vast majority of us would like to work together on a sector that is facing immense difficulties caused by this pandemic. We would like to work collectively.
I will briefly make the point of the importance of this country seizing the opportunity with the digital green certificates. This cannot be optional. We need to be at the heart of the European conversation on this and we must be part of the first wave of EU member states which adopt and embrace the certificate.
Ireland is not an outlier, nor should it be. I believe the digital green certificate should be introduced in July. We made a commitment that the recovery proposal for aviation would be published in May and I am pleased to note that will happen on Friday. I am, however, dismayed at certain aspects of the Minister's contribution this afternoon on the basis that it now looks like we will introduce the digital green certificate in the middle of August. While I understand there may be moves with regard to the common travel area with the UK, which is welcome, some of our biggest markets are in the European Union and the United States, which is why I believe we should be moving faster to implement this.
As I said, we are not an outlier in the European Union. Fine Gael is a member of an organisation that has been at the heart of Europe for many years. With regard to the implementation of the digital green certificate, it seems that, for some strange reason, we will be waiting until August. That is not acceptable.
More than 100,000 jobs are supported by Dublin Airport in my constituency and perhaps a couple of constituencies around it. That is not an exaggeration. The airport contributed €18 billion to our economy in 2018, which is approximately 6% of GDP.
Without providing certainty in the sector as quickly as possible, many more jobs will be at risk, not just those jobs that were lost in Shannon Airport last week. There is the potential for more job losses and those will be in Cork and Dublin in the very near future unless we give certainty to the sector. It requires time to plan the recovery.
I commend Recover Irish Aviation for putting forward such a well put together plan at a very early stage. I also commend the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, on their contributions to the process. I know they have to work on it tirelessly for weeks.
It is time we recognised that the United States and the UK are streets ahead of us in returning to aviation in terms of their vaccination programmes. Excluding them is the wrong thing to do and the wrong message to send. Some of the Deputies opposite have repeatedly referred to the importance of foreign direct investment, FDI, and the United States air routes. We must also recognise, however, that if we do not send a clear message as quickly as possible, it will have a long-lasting impact.
I thank the Minister and welcome the comprehensive statement on the EU Covid-19 travel certificate. I understand July is being considered but I ask that it be introduced as soon as possible. I, too, have been contacted by pilots, staff and their families. We have to be very careful and I know we must take the advice of the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, but we must also be mindful of aviation.
I ask the Minister about the new travel certificate format. My understanding is that there will be a paper or digital format. In the case of the digital format, however, many constituents have contacted me to find out if it would be possible to access this certificate through a mobile telephone, perhaps with an app. No information has been given and the same applies with regard to the paper document. Should we use a credit card format? It is important that we consider that. I also appreciate that we must be mindful of people who do not get the vaccine. We need to ensure we get this right and information and timing will also be very important.
Another concern I have is the consideration of there being three separate and distinct certificates for travel, including certification of a negative test, certification of vaccination and a certificate to confirm a person is recovering from infection. Will the Minister of State clarify whether the digital certificate will incorporate all three of those certifications or whether a person will have to carry separate certificates? This will be coming into operation in only a few weeks - the sooner the better - and I ask that people are told as soon as possible what is happening.
I welcome the proposals and the action that will happen, we hope, in regard to the new EU digital green certificate. The scheme should be seen in the most positive light. It gives us the opportunity to reopen the country. The Oireachtas tourism committee, of which I am Chairman, has had representatives of the tourism recovery task force, the hospitality sector and the Restaurants Association of Ireland before it, sectors that are all hugely dependent on what we can achieve through international tourism and travel. The green certificate will provide an opportunity to set a pathway for the country's reopening.
One of my colleagues talked earlier about how people in this country have a choice when it comes to travel. We live on an island with two different jurisdictions and people have the choice to come in through Belfast. As someone from a Border county, I have seen how people, if they cannot come in through Dublin or have to quarantine when they get there, will look to Belfast as an option. The digital green certificate will eradicate the anomalies that currently arise and provide an opportunity for reopening the country. Its introduction is a positive move and I hope it will happen in July, as has been mooted, or even sooner. I encourage the Minister of State to keep moving in that direction in order to see a reopening of the country.
I welcome the European green certificate, which will be a key step towards reopening Ireland. The pandemic has seen us introduce restrictions that we, as a Government and a nation, never imagined we would see. Public health considerations and saving the lives of the most vulnerable among us were always at the forefront of those decisions but we are all looking forward to the day when the restrictions are no longer needed. The European green certificate is the safest way to allow people to return to travelling freely and safely within the EU. It will play an important role in the rehabilitation of the aviation industry in Ireland. In reopening, we must put public health and practicality first. The EU Covid-19 certificate is simply a commonsense approach to safer travel while we are living with the virus. It is vital that Europe works together and Ireland plays its part in adapting as quickly and effectively as possible.
There is no denying that the travel restrictions have had a huge impact on people's livelihoods. I have seen that at first hand in my constituency and throughout the country. Aer Lingus's recent announcement of closures and staff lay-offs has undeniably and understandably generated much anger and uncertainty. It is vitally important that those who have been worst impacted by restrictions know there is a plan in place for them and that we are listening. I am delighted that we are now in a position to begin lifting restrictions. As we do so, we must ensure we provide clarity to everyone employed in the aviation industry. International travel is vital for the functioning of both our economy and our society. I look forward to its safe and timely return.
In the past year, many of us have discovered more of our own country than ever before. We fully embraced the beauty of an Irish staycation. As international travel returns, it is important that the domestic tourism industry does not suffer. Ireland has a huge amount to offer as a holiday destination. I hope we will continue exploring it and that EU tourists will shortly be able to join us in so doing.
The aviation sector has suffered devastating consequences due to the pandemic. That was laid bare with Aer Lingus's recent announcement that it will be permanently pulling its cabin crew from Shannon Airport and there will be job losses in Cork for crew and ground staff. This is a terrible blow for the staff involved and their families. It is also causing increased anxiety for people working in the sector regarding their job security. While no one could have foreseen the disruption to international travel caused by the pandemic, the lack of protection available to workers is a direct consequence of the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government's decision to fully privatise Aer Lingus in 2015. That significantly weakened the Government's hand in addressing the current crisis. It left regional bases and routes vulnerable and we are seeing the consequence of that in Shannon and Cork. Those decisions are leading to increased isolation for Ireland at a time when we need to increase connectivity.
Earlier in the pandemic, restrictions on international travel were required to protect public health as populations were unvaccinated and the virus was running rampant. At this stage, however, we need a clear pathway for international travel. We need to maintain and support our strategic connectivity, aviation jobs and the rights of workers. The loss of routes is devastating and it could take years to win them back, if it can be done at all. When the disastrous decision was taken in 2015 to privatise Aer Lingus fully, a €245 million connectivity fund was established. It is time to use that fund to protect jobs and routes. Even when travel reopens, the sector will remain under financial pressure for some time and supports will have to be provided.
We must take advantage of the positives. Europe's vaccination programme is progressing and plans to implement the digital green certificate are ongoing. We need to have a comprehensive plan in place for Ireland, including timelines. We also need concrete plans on testing, including antigen testing, to ensure people can travel safely internationally. We have been calling for this for months and it is time the Government delivered. The transport committee has heard expert evidence on how serial antigen testing can be used. We must include it in our testing regime. We need to prepare and antigen testing is a part of that. We must ensure there is a recovery plan in place for the sector. Without a clear plan, the significant damage the restrictions have had on aviation will worsen and it will be very hard to come back from that. The hands-off approach taken by the Minister for Transport and the Government is costing more and more jobs. We need a plan as a matter of urgency. A total of 140,000 jobs depend on it.
Vaccine passports, Covid passports or EU digital green certificates, call them what you will, are the way forward. At this stage, the only way to look is forward. Looking backward or standing still is not an option. When viable solutions present themselves, we must grab them with both hands. These travel documents offer a solution to one of our main issues and will ultimately be a vital component in the universal quest for normality.
Following agreement by the Council of Ministers, EU member states, including Ireland, have been given a directive to introduce Covid certificates. The primary objective is to open up Europe to free movement. Ireland is obliged to comply with the directive but it is up to us to determine the criteria we lay down for the issuing of our certificates. It is this aspect that concerns me. This is not a matter on which we can dither. It requires swift and definitive action. It is not just about allowing people to jet off to the sun. It is about salvaging our aviation industry, hospitality industry and the economic vibrancy of our country.
Our approach to formulating our criteria cannot be restrictive. It must be as constructive and encompassing as it can possibly be. There cannot and must not be a delay in setting out the criteria. The EU system is expected to be functioning next month. Despite knowledge of this plan to introduce the key that will safely open Ireland up to the rest of Europe, we still do not know who is directing the formulation of our criteria.
Ireland cannot be the hurler on the ditch or last past the post on this. We are an island country. Travel is vital to our economy. It is crucial to our recovery. If Ireland is not ready to move with the first in Europe, we not only prolong the crippling effects of Covid on our aviation industry but we also risk running them out of the country. Last week we learned that Aer Lingus plans to close its cabin crew base at Shannon Airport. Ryanair has shown losses of €815 million in the 12 months to the end of March. It has already moved aircraft from Dublin to other European bases and publicly stated it will not be moving them back.
In the face of already-seen damage, why is Ireland not top of the queue to introduce digital green certificates? Why are we not shouting their benefits from the rooftops? Digital green certificates will be available to everyone: those who are vaccinated, those who can prove immunity after recent recovery from Covid and those who have a negative Covid Test. These certificates will be all-inclusive. Every man, woman and child falls into one of these categories. The production of a negative test will most likely be the most common way for a large portion of the Irish population. Those who are stuck between the first and second doses of AstraZeneca, those who are not vaccinated at all and children of all ages will rely on a negative test to travel. This test requirement has also portrayed Ireland in a less than favourable light. The Irish Travel Agents Association has revealed that it costs €160 to have a private PCR test in Ireland. In Spain it costs just €50. This anomaly must be factored into any criteria laid down by Ireland. So too must the use of antigen testing. The delays and lack of clear decision on this invaluable screening tool defies belief. Government has acknowledged its merits, as have business and education, yet health officials contradict the findings of the Government’s own chief scientific adviser, Professor Mark Ferguson, without providing any clear scientific grounds. Thus antigen testing remains the poor relation in Covid testing.
Ireland’s aviation industry is in tatters. Our hospitality sector is gasping for air. The Covid vaccine was our first ray of hope and it continues to be our ray of light. The European digital green certificates provide our next significant jump towards recovery. It is of critical importance that we take urgent action and that the Government brings forward clear an unambiguous criteria to embrace, implement and roll out the digital green certificate.
The digital green certificate is seen by many as the only way to ensure there is safe overseas travel this coming summer. In principle I support the idea of a digital green certificate, although I have a few concerns I will outline later. On the certificates, can the Minister of State outline a realistic timeframe for when we might be able to implement this? Are we looking at weeks or even months before it can be implemented? I would welcome an update from the Minister of State in this regard. I believe that today the EU stated it will be available from 1 June. One of the main reasons I support the introduction of the digital green certificate is that it will reopen the hospitality sector to overseas travel and help our aviation sector, among many others. From speaking to and engaging with a large number of businesses in my own constituency, Louth, which are heavily dependent on overseas travel for their income, I know the past 14 months have been, quite frankly, disastrous. While I welcome the Government's efforts to support these businesses during the lockdowns it simply was not going to be enough for many of them to stay afloat.
One of the big questions I am being asked about the digital green certificate is whether the United States will be part of the scheme. Many businesses in County Louth involved in the tourism sector, and particularly those in the north of the county, rely heavily on tourists from North America. Can the Minister of State confirm what the situation is with visitors from the United States and the digital green certificate? Will such visitors be part of the scheme and if not, will a separate scheme be operated for them? As I said already, many businesses in the tourism sector, particularly areas in the northern part of the county like Carlingford and Omeath, have suffered a great loss as a result of the lockdown. Their only chance of survival is the reopening of the sector and in particular, being able to receive visitors from North America. I would therefore be very grateful if the Minister of State could give us a detailed update on this.
At the beginning of my speech I mentioned I had some concerns about the digital green certificate. As we all know, the digital green certificate is being introduced so as to give countries assurances that visitors from other countries are vaccinated and not carrying the virus. I have concerns about the forging of green certificates. Can the Minister of State update the House on the measures being taken to ensure digital green certificates are authentic and genuine? What measures are being taken to ensure digital green certificates are not fraudulent? Also, can the Minister of State confirm that once it is introduced, the same procedure will be implemented by all member states? We do not want to see some states adopting different sets of rules to others.
I come from Dundalk, a Border area, and like all other parts of the island we have suffered due to the pandemic and Brexit. Many people who live in Dundalk work in the North as teachers, nurses, or in other essential roles and most of them got vaccinated in the North. Will they be entitled to the green certificate and vice versa, will those from the North who get vaccinated in the South get green certificates? The big concern I have had in my constituency office over the last number of days concerns the vaccination programme. The people have been asked to register online for the vaccine and have done so for the last number of weeks. However, there seems to be a big gap because only this morning, I encountered eight different people born in 1961 who had been skipped and all of a sudden. their siblings who registered a week or two later have got it. They want to get the digital green certificate. They want to either go on holidays or visit their loved ones. Can the Minster of State check with the HSE and see what exactly is happening at the moment? I ask because when these people ring the helpline looking for an update on when they are going to be vaccinated, they are basically being fobbed off and that is not very fair. As I said these citizens have been asked to register, they have done so and the least the HSE can do is give them a decent answer.
The private sector is the engine of growth in this country. As a small, open economy we depend on aviation for that. With the billions upon billions of euro we have been forced to borrow to ensure people had enough to eat, live and pay bills over the course of the past year, we need aviation open as quickly as possible. This must happen first of all to support corporate Ireland and second, to support tourism, which in turn feeds into our hospitality sector, which we have beaten to death via our total aversion to risk over the course of the last year. While I acknowledge our medics have done a very good job in giving us advice on what must be avoided and undertaken, we as a Government have failed in our responsibilities to distil that down into a functioning economy and aviation is a good example of that.
I have very little time to speak this evening but anybody who is fully vaccinated should have no travel restrictions. For them there should be no testing requirements, no quarantine requirements and no restrictive movement requirements. Why else are we being vaccinated? We are up at 30% now and growing, we should lift the ban for those people immediately, particularly between here and the UK, where there is no rational reason for a ban. Obviously, people are going in through the North and up and down in any event and we need to get with the programme there.
Antigen testing seems to be working throughout the entire world but for some reason we have a total aversion to its use or benefits here. I am not a medical physician and I am not an expert but it seems that Dr. Holohan and NPHET are outliers in the world. How can their position be so different to that of the rest of the world in this context? I had hoped the senior Minister would be here, although I intend no offence to the Minister of State. I had hoped he would outline to the House what he discussed with the US Secretary of State yesterday. Did he discuss the ban on allowing people from Ireland into the USA and vice versa? What is the position for European citizens? We need an urgent update on that. What has happened to the €20 million of support for the airlines announced last November? No airline has got anything yet and it is June. Aer Lingus has lost in the region of €460 million and Ryanair in the region of €800 million. These companies are vitally important to our connectivity and employ many people. Finally, I ask that we not bring up the rear with this new digital pass. As has been said by others, as a small open economy we should be bursting at the seams to get out there and be the first to be ready to use it and be open for business.
As we have this debate on the digital green certificate, there are airport workers listening who have lost income or their jobs and who are seeking a roadmap forward. I hope that the Government will give them that roadmap on Friday. I worked in Dublin Airport and, as I said in this Chamber last September and again in January, morale there has never been as low. In managing the pandemic, the Government has neither been a zero-Covid zealot nor put the economy before public safety. It has treaded a sort of cautious and pragmatic centre road. It never closed essential travel, despite calls in this House to do so, but it has restricted non-essential travel. That often received criticism from Members on both sides but it remains the correct action to have taken.
Later this week we will speak about mandatory hotel quarantine. It is important to say mandatory hotel quarantine and the digital green certificate are not incompatible concepts, and creating safe zones and or separating zones where there are virulent variants is a sensible way forward for the industry. In the same way we tread the middle road, we will have to move away from mandatory hotel quarantine when it is right to do so. This should not be based on the name of the country but the data about the country.
Many in the aviation sector have been frustrated but just 89 days ago Sinn Féin, People Before Profit, the Social Democrats and Labour all voted for the forced mandatory hotel quarantining of people entering this country from every country, regardless of data. Instead, the Government took public health advice, listing countries from which travellers were required to quarantine in hotels and regularly updating that list. Today, there are just four European countries on that list. Three months on, the zero-Covid zealots seem to have disappeared from the Chamber but I remember when they said we should have mandatory hotel quarantine for all arrivals.
With 45% of the population vaccinated, we must protect the vaccine programme but we must also accept that this gives people the opportunity to have non-essential travel too. As I said in the House on 1 April last, antigen testing will play a part. I also acknowledged a campaign from IALPA and the Recover Irish Aviation Group, whose members I have met. There are 140,000 jobs at stake in the sector and we should pave the way forward for a safe form of travel.
I will be brief and focus on the digital green certificate, with two fundamental but interconnected issues, namely, freedom and privacy. On the one hand, the certificate would help facilitate the safe reopening of EU economies, with the crucial word being "safe". People who fear putting their loved ones at risk with the simple act of spending time together no longer need to worry about that risk and tourism can slowly begin to reboot in cities, towns and villages across the EU without fear of future lockdowns. Importantly, livelihoods can be restored for sectors deeply affected over the past year and four months.
That being said, a green certificate should not inadvertently lead to discrimination between people or groups of people when it comes to freedom of movement. It is a freedom on which we pride ourselves and from which we have benefited for generations. I reiterate the comments made by my Green Party colleagues in the European Parliament that people who have not yet been vaccinated should not be discriminated against. To my mind, this means there should be two other criteria for a certificate, which are proof of a negative Covid-19 test or of Covid-19 recovery. They need to be on an equal footing to proof of vaccination. I am conscious this may not always be possible in practice so safeguards for such circumstances must be teased out and addressed.
I also highlight the question of data protection and echo the concerns of my EU counterparts in highlighting that there should be no trade-off between people's data protection rights and the facilitation of safe travel. We need both. People across the EU and beyond must be assured that whereas a certificate will verify public health safety, it should not be used to collect, store or transmit information about where, when or for what purpose a person is using the certificate.
I support my colleagues in this particularly important debate. Now we have reached a stage where the light at the end of the tunnel is beginning to emerge in controlling the virus, it is equally important that our economy should respond to the needs of the workforce. We must do this with the utmost urgency and in a variety of ways. The European green certificate is one way of moving forward and we should utilise this method to the fullest extent possible. We should also try to recognise the pivotal and central position that this country has long established in international air transport. We must realise that there is a major onus on air transport to facilitate not only this country's needs but also global needs. I plead for a massive amount of European support for both Aer Lingus and Ryanair because of the important job they do. I hope these moneys can be made available as quickly as possible.
It goes without saying that our aviation sector is incredibly important for our island but it cannot afford to wait much longer before travel starts to resume internationally. Devastated tourism and aviation industries have been crying out for a plan and the position is becoming increasingly frustrating as vaccine roll-out progresses. We have seen non-essential travel between Britain and the North resume and we must act now to harmonise the common travel area by aligning with the UK position. The European Union’s digital green certificate will be an important step in allowing for the freedom of movement of people within the EU. We must act quickly to ensure there is no avoidable delay in getting the process set up and giving people the option to avail of this important initiative by the EU. In a similar way, fully vaccinated travellers from the United States should be welcomed into Ireland under a similar, if not identical, framework to the proposed digital green certificate. This should be applied to all travellers from the United States.
The Government must adopt a position on the use of rapid antigen testing, which is scientifically proven and which would enable Ireland to emerge as quickly and safely as possible from the dreadful pandemic. We have multiple test programmes running and there does not need to be a delay in implementation within the aviation sector. This is a proven technique in detecting infectious cases so I ask that this be given serious priority by the Government.
Why must we wait for the likes of Aer Lingus to close its cabin crew base in Shannon for us to wonder why things like this happen? I told the Government that it would happen but the Government did not listen. Our airports must be attractive for airlines to use as a base for their business. We in Ireland are entering a very competitive landscape and it is too late to act when companies are closing and leaving the country. The Government must commit to delivering a multi-annual fund, not just for Shannon but also for other regional airports that need certainty at this challenging time. Funding must be put in place now.
There are 143,000 people working in the aviation industry and 270,000 are employed in tourism, 50,000 of them are located in he mid-west region. I call on the Government and the Minister for Transport to appoint a chairperson for Shannon Airport. This is vital for the future of the airport, Shannon, Limerick and the surrounding areas. The Minister should wake up and appoint a chairperson for Shannon so we can deal with the issues coming in there. The best thing I can say is that the Government should wake up. It is not listening. A year ago I said this would happen but the Government did not listen.
I thank my colleagues, Deputies Mattie McGrath, O'Donoghue and Michael Healy-Rae for giving me time to speak to this very important matter. It has been well flagged for months now that thousands of aviation workers are facing permanent unemployment if the Government keeps dragging its heels. There is a further complication with Cork Airport because there are plans to close it for a few months at the end of the year for runway works. I have nothing against this work being carried out but I am totally opposed to the airport's decision to fully close the facility. I am also not happy that Cork's airport authority did not consult either me as a public representative or business and tourism representatives from west Cork about the closure. The Minister must step in and pressure must be put on the airport to complete this work at night, as it could and should be done. Otherwise, jobs will be lost and never regained as a result of this closure, which comes on top of the current Covid-19 crisis. A closure of the airport for a further three months must be avoided and we must resume a summer schedule if at all possible, which goes to the end of October. If the runway closure goes ahead, there should be a continuation of the PUP for the affected workers in the aviation sector in Cork for the period of the works.
The Government needs to give a guarantee of no closure for Cork-based crew permanently.
A rapid antigen test needs to be put in place. Since the start of this pandemic I have raised this issue and I have called on the Government, over months and even last year, to put in place rapid antigen testing. The last time I spoke on this, the then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, and now the current Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, both completely ignored my requests.
We need further financial support for Aer Lingus from the Government. This is absolutely vital and the bottom line is that the Government needs to step up and take action immediately to save aviation.
In the past, the Minister has stated that he does not like to see people in motor cars. I believe that the Minister really does not like to see people in aeroplanes either.
The connectivity between our country and the rest of Europe and the rest of the world is of paramount importance. The Aer Lingus workers are fighting for their survival. Cork and Shannon airports need to be enhanced and helped to grow. I ask the Minister of State and the Government to stop dumping money in Dublin Airport, an airport that does not even have a rail network going to it from the city. That is absolutely ridiculous. The amount of money being pumped into Dublin Airport at a time Shannon Airport is being left to sink is wrong and should not be allowed to happen.
I ask the Minister of State to please take on board the massive contribution being made by people who are working in the aviation industry, be it for international business people who want to go to come here or the tourists who want to come into our country. These are all of paramount importance. It is so important that we protect those lifelines to the rest of the world. We are an island nation and do not forget it. People will have to fly in here and they will have to fly out. If we want businesses and our tourism sector to grow we need to help, but the Government is looking to tax flights into Ireland by raising enormously the cost of the aviation fuel through taxes.
With regard to our airport in County Kerry and our regional airports such as the airport at Knock, we want to ensure they continue. The great Monsignor Horan and Charles. J. Haughey worked tirelessly to ensure that airport was carved out of a bog. It has served a great purpose there since, welcoming people into that part of the country. Kerry Airport is also a great regional airport and we want to ensure it is allowed to continue into the future.
I do not know what kind of a death wish the Minister of State and the Government have on rural Ireland especially. During a Zoom meeting last Friday I listened to the heartfelt pleas of wonderful and long-serving staff from Shannon Airport. It was heartfelt fear at the sheer abandonment of the airlines by the Government and both Ministers responsible. This is at a time we should be trying to expand them. We have two wonderful airlines in Aer Lingus and Ryanair, with wonderful staff. We know what they do. It is time to look after them. Get the mayhem out of Dublin Airport and support Shannon, Knock and Cork airports. Give them some decent modicum of responsibility.
On the pandemic and the Government's response to it, I have said before that it is a plandemic, which is what it seems to be. They just want to turn off the tap on rural Ireland and cast people's lives away. There were Deputies in here, from the left parties in general, who were crying for zero Covid, including the Labour Party. Now they want to complain about the results of it. Thank God we did not go there. It has been a whole mishmash of dysfunction and being disloyal to our people while being subservient to somebody else.
On the green certificates, why was the European Commission debating the green passports in 2017, 2018 and 2019, before we ever had Covid? What is going on? I would advise people in this House to be careful what they wish for. We will all be locked up and not able to go anywhere. Big Brother will be watching us. I believe this is the Government's plan: to control, control, control, and to hell or to Connacht with the people. Certainly, anything outside of Dublin is to hell, to Connacht, to Africa or to any place else they want to go. The way the Government is blackguarding the people is shameful. RTÉ was putting fear into people last Thursday telling us that the extensions to emergency powers were being decided and being done without ever coming to this House. RTÉ and other journalists should get their facts right because we must debate that in this House this week.
Whoever said it was easier to lock down due to Covid rather than to open up was not wrong. We have, however, come to a point now where we must bite the bullet. All our actions take place in context and while the situation is fluid, the headlines around vaccination, hospitalisations, antigen testing, and now the EU green certificate, are all encouraging. Biting the bullet means that we now need clarity on opening up aviation. We need a roadmap to guide us. We need a funding package that underpins the opening up of the aviation sector that will protect jobs and maintain connectivity.
We need to know when the EU green certificate will be operational and what the conditions will be. Will the Minister of State say if we have an indicative date for the introduction of this certificate? People need to know. The aviation sector needs to know. Do we have the operating systems required to manage the use of this certificate? Can the Minister of State assure us of that today?
There has been much controversy about the rapid antigen testing. Ireland is a laggard on this. It reminds me somewhat of the debate around mask wearing at the beginning of the pandemic. I actively advocated for mask wearing from the very outset, as did others. There was real reluctance, however, from some people. The idea that the perfect was the enemy of the good was part of it, but there was also an element of whether we can trust the public to wear masks properly. There was an opinion that medical professionals wear masks and they are trained to do so, but Josephine and Joe Public do not. We had what I would call a type of medical paternalism on the issue. On the antigen testing, the Government's chief scientific adviser, Professor Mark Ferguson, published a report co-authored by Professor Patrick Mallon, Professor Mary Horgan, and Professor Kingston Mills. The report advocated the use of rapid antigen testing to enable the accelerated easing of restrictions in Ireland. Governments across the world are proactively advocating the use of rapid antigen testing as part of their return to international travel. Once again, however, Ireland is dragging its heels when it comes to rapid antigen testing. It is not perfect. No test is perfect, but it has an important role. Is there a hint of medical paternalism here in that, again, Josephine and Joe Public can use these tests themselves and the tests do not have to be administered by a medical professional? Covid can only be managed by a truly collaborative approach. As I said earlier, we are at a point where we as citizens are part of the solution. We are not the problem.
On the issue of Shannon Airport, I once had the privilege of representing County Clare in the European Parliament. I understand the vital importance of Shannon Airport as an economic driver for the region. That is not the only reason I mention this. Shannon Airport matters not just to the mid-west. It matters to the west, to the north west and to the south west. Balanced regional development is literally that: a balance of development for all the regions. If the Wild Atlantic Way has taught us anything, it is that where regions co-operate, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
While it is not specifically relevant to the debate, I will very briefly mention Sligo Airport. I have brought this up with the Minister of State on a number of occasions, but not in the context of connectivity or Covid. It was in the context of search and rescue provision for the west and the north west. It is beyond urgent that funding is channelled to Sligo Airport for safety works already completed. I have raised this issue many times. I will not labour it today but it needs to be dealt with now.
We are a small country. Connectivity is key.
International and transatlantic connectivity is vital to the west coast as well as to the east coast. This is why I speak about Shannon. I was in this Parliament when the process of privatising Aer Lingus began in 2006. I opposed it then and, unfortunately, to some extent the chickens have come home to roost. We have to pay a price for this and so be it but we must pay it. Selling Aer Lingus was one thing. Allowing it to disengage substantially from the west coast would be unforgivable.
I thank all the Deputies who made important contributions. I assure them the Government is acutely aware of the devastating impact Covid-19 is having on the aviation industry, on families and workers and on those who are impacted by the sector. I thank the Oireachtas joint committee for the work it has carried out in keeping this topic in the spotlight over the past 15 months through the various meetings that have been held during this time. This week, the committees, the Seanad and the Dáil have assisted in our understanding of the complexities of the needs and concerns of stakeholders in aviation and the public in balancing the economic impacts against the public health imperative. It is through such cross-governmental collaboration with the public interest at its heart that I believe we will navigate this crisis, with care and caution, towards an ultimate reopening of international travel. The Government is fully aware of the pressure those in aviation are under and the frustration present in the industry. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, and I will continue to engage with the aviation industry, the airports and the air carriers, individually and collectively through the national civil aviation development forum.
A number of Deputies raised important issues and I addressed many of them in my opening statement. A number raised the midwest region and Shannon Airport. There is real concern in the midwest region about the lack of transatlantic flights and about the Heathrow slots. As I said earlier, Aer Lingus has assured the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and me there was no strategic intent to reduce connectivity out of Shannon Airport. I fully expected Aer Lingus to resume flights at Shannon Airport gradually as restrictions are eased over the coming months.
I advise Deputies that in the coming weeks the Tánaiste will make an announcement as part of the programme for Government commitment to establish a Shannon estuary task force, recognising that Shannon Airport is a key economic driver and that the midwest region is critical. In total last year and this year, €30 million in Government supports has been made available to Shannon Group, through economy-wide supports and supports specific to the aviation sector. We have ensured that all of our aviation infrastructure, airports and regional airports have been supported and are in a position to be able to rebound and grow as we come out of this crisis. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, and I have placed a big emphasis on this over recent months.
The Covid-19 virus is our shared concern and the public health objective is the starting point. The Government has consistently adopted a cautious approach to international travel and has worked to ensure any necessary air travel is done safely. There was some optimism last summer that aviation in Europe would have been well on its way to recovery by the end of 2020 but, unfortunately, this did not transpire. Instead, there were significant rates of infection throughout Europe and globally in the autumn. This was compounded by the importation of the B117 variant, which swept through the country following the partial reopening during Christmas, followed by other emerging variants of concern. Flight bans were introduced here for the first time as an emergency response to the new variant strains of Covid-19. These flight bans were quickly replaced by a pre-departure test requirement. As soon as possible thereafter, a system of mandatory quarantine was established in law.
Despite some initial start-up issues, as expected with any new system, the mandatory quarantine system assisted in containing the seeding of new cases of Covid-19 and variants of concern in the State, while we endeavoured to manage persistent high rates of community transmission at the same time. However, the current course of Covid-19 means international travel is reduced to essential journeys only. In this context, the aviation sector is operating at very low levels of activity, as the House is well aware.
The industry and its employees have shown great fortitude over the past 15 months in supporting the public health measures through implementing the protocols for passenger travel, Covid-19 proofing our airports and denying boarding at the gates to those passengers who do not comply with Ireland's public health measures. Through the labour employer economic forum, LEAF, process which I chair, involving employer and employee representative bodies, it has been acknowledged there will inevitably be a lag in aviation reopening compared to other economic sectors. However, we will continue to explore the supports needed to sustain industry in trading its way back to recovery when that time is signalled. In particular, the wage supports have been hugely important in maintaining the connection between employers and employees. There will be no cliff edge in State supports, as has been previously outlined.
I encourage the aviation sector to continue to engage with me, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and departmental officials in the work in bringing forward proposals and in the preparation for a recovery and restart for international travel. Of course, we need a strong and sustainable economy in which international travel and aviation are central. However, the risk to public health remains the driver of the Government's response, planning and action.
Ireland has a proud history in aviation and our reputation internationally is exceptional. It fits well with our culture of global citizenship and has always enabled the Irish diaspora to set its sights further beyond the immediate horizon. Aviation connects us with the world and we will strive to ensure that in future connectivity is maintained with Europe, the common travel area, on transatlantic routes and to many other global destinations. It is with this perspective that we will build back better and more resilient to face future shocks. The policies and targets we are setting now for sustainability and climate action will ensure this resilience. Our aviation industry, airports and air carriers will play an important role in this transition over time.
In addition, balanced regional development is at the heart of our programme for Government. We recognise that all parts of Ireland must be able to prosper. The silence that has descended over our regional airports is indicative of the disproportionate impact a crisis such as this can have on the regions, particularly our smaller regional airports such as Donegal, Ireland West Airport Knock and Kerry. For this reason, out of a budget of almost €80 million in 2021 approximately 78% is being targeted at regional airports, with Cork and Shannon receiving almost 43% of the overall budget. We will continue to do what we can to support these airports and we will keep the situation under constant review as part of budget 2022.
With regard to the immediate crisis and the need to get international travel back up and running, this is vital for the continued economic well-being of the country and remains a priority for the Government. However, this can only be accomplished through the consideration of the progression of Covid-19, the national vaccination programme, developments at EU and international level and our public health advice. The Government will set out its position this week.