Seanad debates

Friday, 7 May 2021

European Digital Green Certificate: Statements


10:30 am

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, my neighbour. In a pre-Covid world, we used to meet occasionally in north Meath. Presumably, and hopefully, we will be doing that again soon. I also echo Senator Keogan's remarks in congratulating the Minister, Deputy McEntee, and Paul Hickey on the birth of Michael Shane.

The digital green certificate will facilitate people's right to move freely within the EU and will help support the lifting of restrictions across the member states in a co-ordinated way. On St. Patrick's Day this year, the EU Commission put forward proposed regulations for a digital green certificate. The certificate would include proof of vaccination, proof of negative test result or proof of immunity after recovering from a recent Covid-19 infection. This certificate is intended to be temporary, and each member state would operate within its own systems or public health measures. Basically, there is domestic discretion. Further work on the proposed regulation is taking place between the European Parliament and the European Council and it is expected that these negotiations will be finished by June, in time for the regulation to come into effect by 26 June. To date, Ireland has participated in the working group discussions at EU level to examine the proposal. At home, an interdepartmental group of officials from Departments has been set up, and the Department of the Taoiseach has established a sub-group of senior officials involving a wide range of Departments to establish national policy on this proposal. Member states would be expected to be ready to implement the new certificate by 26 June, with a six-week transition period to 7 August.

Issues that have to be ironed out ahead of implementation include the status of antigen tests and whether they can be used, IT systems, border infrastructure for verifying certificates and other such practical matters, as well as the impact of vaccinations and levels of immunity. Information notes on the draft digital green certificate regulation have been submitted for Oireachtas scrutiny. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health decided on 27 April to keep the files under scrutiny, and the Department of Health is drafting an updated report for the committee's consideration. Separately, but relevant in terms of current vaccination verification systems, the House should note that the World Health Organization vaccination verification records system is already in place and used by people when travelling to destinations where certain diseases are prevalent.We are all familiar with that. The international certificate of vaccination or prophylaxis is provided for through the 2005 international health regulations. A person's vaccinations are recorded in a booklet, the colour and style of which may vary from country to country. It is then used along with a passport to gain entry into certain countries. This would be happening in normal times. There is a possibility that Covid-19 will be included in such a vaccination system.

A person's right to enter a country and bring home a serious disease or cause ill health had in that fashion to be curbed and was curbed long before Covid. People's rights in this regard are not absolute. Freedom of movement is a pillar right of the EU. We want to preserve it, hence the merit of these certificates. These rights are not absolute and if one is putting lives in danger, they have to be curtailed.

We are a country of emigration with a diaspora all over the world, and that makes egress from and access to this country and island so important. We have kinship all over the world. Apart from those sentimental, personal considerations, the right to travel and the free movement of persons, there are compelling economic issues. Some 143,000 people work in the airline industry in Ireland, of whom 12,000 are pilots. There are 250,000 jobs in the airline and hospitality sectors combined. Travel agents employ 3,500 people. It is estimated it will take until 2024 to bring us back to 2019 levels in our airports and in normal travel. That is a scary statistic. These are serious figures and a serious economic question, apart from quality of life, rights, freedom of travel and all of that.

Dublin Airport was down about 95% of its normal traffic in 2020. I am sure Senator Dooley will speak more about Shannon. Scarily, Shannon and Cork are worse again. That is how bad it is. Aer Lingus has seen a €536 million operating loss. There were supports and it is right that we are proud of the supports provided by Government by way of wage subsidy, tax clawback, rates remission and a €200 million operating fund. That is always good but we must not underestimate the human reality of having pilots and a whole plethora of workers in airports grounded with no work and no motivation. These people have mortgages. In the catchment area of our airports, many major residential centres have built up which are populated by airline staff. There are mortgages to be paid on these properties and families to be educated and reared in these areas.

As soon as we can implement the digital green certificate, it should be done. I will say it to the Minister and I hope he will say there will be no question of the populist nonsense that is around that we might not be up to speed with it. We will be up to speed with it, I presume. I would like to have it reiterated at the end that we will be at the vanguard of it and ready to go with every other country in Europe. We have always been that way and I do not see why it should change now. I believe this is an important initiative to save jobs and livelihoods, to provide quality of life, to link us to our diaspora and regarding the principle of the free movement of persons. There are so many issues that it is a no-brainer, to put it in the popular parlance. We must have the digital green certificates, we must implement them immediately and we must move on it.

In some instances of conscientious objectors and whatever, if it involves a curbing of rights at some stage, no right is absolute when the common good is at stake. A few fundamental rights are absolute, but most rights are subject to the common good and the welfare of general society.


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