Seanad debates

Friday, 7 May 2021

European Digital Green Certificate: Statements


10:30 am

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

Gabhaim buíochas leis na Seanadóirí atá i láthair inniu, agus gabhaim buíochas as an deis seo míniú don Seanad cad atá ag tarlú leis an ábhar fíorthábhachtach seo. The pandemic continues to have a significant impact on the lives of everyone in Ireland. The Government's public health response to the pandemic continues to be thorough and based on best international and national evidence. Over December and January last, Ireland experienced a third wave of Covid-19 due to a combination of relaxed restrictions, increased international travel and the importation of the B.1.1.7 variant. This variant of concern is now the dominant variant in Ireland, making up approximately 94% of cases. Due to the significant impact of this variant on the health sector and wider public health, the Government took proactive measures to address the risk of importation and the spread of further variants. Thanks to the exceptional efforts of the people and broad observance of public health measures during recent months, there has been a clear improvement in the prevalence of the virus in the community. With this recent stabilisation of the epidemiological situation, the Government has taken cautious steps towards the reopening of our economy and society through gradual lifting of restrictions.

The priority in Ireland is always to maintain control over the disease and prevent a further wave of infection until the vaccination programme offers a widespread population level of protection. To support this the Government has enacted proactive, targeted health protection measures to mitigate the risk of variants coming to Ireland. Travel policy is kept under ongoing review with respect to the developing epidemiological situation and public health advice. We also have to look to the future and prepare for further reopening of society and travel.We are keen to ensure that every effort is made to achieve alignment of travel policy across the European Union to prepare for the opening of travel again for non-essential and leisure purposes as soon as it is safe to do so. European Union travel is an important and valuable way of strengthening the solidarity and collegiality across the Union and freedom of movement is a fundamental right of citizenship of the European Union. Ireland has previously implemented the traffic light system, which supported a co-ordinated approach across the EU to travel restrictions in the context of Covid-19. Our travel policy is kept under constant review, considering the domestic and international epidemiological situation.

Currently, all travellers to Ireland are required to complete a passenger locator form, undergo Covid-19 testing and observe home quarantine. Ireland now maintains a list of designated states, following an assessment of the risk of importation of variants of concern. Travellers from designated states are subject to enhanced restrictions, including mandatory hotel quarantine, which was introduced primarily as a health protection measure to address the dangers posed by variants of concern. These measure are necessary in stabilising the spread of Covid-19 in the community but as we move forward together to meet the next phase of reopening society, we very much welcome the significant step facilitated by the digital green certificate regulation proposed by the European Commission.

The Government recognises the importance of the digital green certificate regulation in supporting the lifting of restrictions currently in place in a co-ordinated manner and facilitating that fundamental right to which I referred of people in the EU to move and reside freely within the EU. This proposal will facilitate free movement within the European Union through a common framework for the issuance, verification and acceptance of certificates relating to vaccination, testing and recovery. This technical tool will include proof of vaccination, proof of a negative test result or proof of immunity after recovery from a recent Covid-19 infection. The proposal builds on previous technical work carried out in the EU Health Security Committee and the EU eHealth Network, both of which the Department of Health has fully engaged with throughout the pandemic.

The regulation is proposed to be a temporary pandemic measure, lasting for 12 months. Ireland and other EU member states will decide how to use the certificate as part of national travel measures in line with subsidiarity. The proposal is moving rapidly through the negotiation process at EU level, as part of an urgent procedure. An ad hocworking group was established at EU level to examine the proposal in detail. Ireland participates fully in these discussions on an interdepartmental basis to ensure careful consideration is given to the proposal across a number of sectors. This ad hocgroup at EU level agreed the Council's negotiating mandate for the proposal. The European Parliament adopted its negotiating mandate for the proposal last week on 29 April.

The European Parliament and the European Council have begun negotiations, known as the trilogue, to finalise the details of the proposed regulation and we are actively engaging in the negotiating process as part of the Council to ensure that our priorities and needs are realised. Those negotiations started this week and I understand they will continue into next week and the following week. Operational aspects for the interoperable certificate system are currently being progressed in parallel with the proposed regulations and the negotiations, which is understandable due to the significantly short timeframe. Engagement is ongoing, not just at a European level, but on a cross-governmental basis here in Ireland to co-ordinate operational procedures as this very significant proposal is progressed and implemented.

In the coming weeks and months, the Department of Health will continue to develop the technical aspects to implement the certificate system, while developing the supporting operational procedures, legal instruments and a communications campaign, as appropriate. It is of significant importance that this proposal is implemented in Ireland without the risk of diverting limited resources away from providing or supporting health services, but once this proposal is enacted through regulation it will be legally binding on the State from its enactment. The priority at the moment is the core systems that support the roll-out of vaccines, regaining and maintaining control over the disease and preventing a further wave of infection until the vaccination programme does its work on the population. To be clear, the Government is committed to the proposal, which will be an obligation under the European Union, and it will be a right of citizens to obtain this certificate in accordance with the terms of the regulation.I look forward to hearing what the Senators have to say. I will try my best to answer questions at the end. While the Department of Foreign Affairs is obviously very much involved in this, the Department of Health is leading on it. I am certainly keen to progress it as much as I can as it is before the General Affairs Council at EU level.


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