Friday, 7 May 2021
European Digital Green Certificate: Statements
Like others, I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, and thank him for the work he has done on this issue to date. I know that, committed European that he is, as we all like to think we are in this House, this is a welcome development. It is about underpinning one of the four fundamental freedoms upon which the European Union was founded and exists. I am relatively pleased with the progress so far. I have some concerns about the way in which the European Union initially managed the vaccination programme, the purchase of vaccines and the way in which that was handled. That is working its way through. I am pleased with the progress of the European Parliament, in that it has progressed this initiative with the Commission, and now it is down to the member states. That is always where it gets tricky. I look to Senator McDowell, who has far greater experience in dealing with the Council of Ministers than I or perhaps most in this House.What I am concerned about is the potential for domestic discretion, which is enshrined there and which is always helpful when it comes to the enactment of laws. I am concerned about the way in which the Government is moving, particularly on the free movement of people from an aviation perspective. We are an island nation on the periphery of Europe. The digital green certificate and the benefits that it accrues to member states and citizens of the European Union have far greater importance in Ireland than they do in France, Belgium or any other country, with the possible exception of Malta and Greece. The reality is that 90% of the travel in and out of this country is by air and we need an aviation plan to coincide with the introduction of the digital green certificate, not in some kind of sequence but developed in concert and at the same time. If we do not, then there will be real and substantial threats to our connectivity because airlines, aircraft and the airline business generally operate in a global sphere. Airlines are looking at their aircraft and wondering where they can make best use of them or get a return on investment. I do not need to lecture the Minister of State, as many airline workers live in his constituency so he knows full well the issue.
We need the Government and the Department of Transport to move quickly to develop an aviation recovery plan. The National Civil Aviation Development Forum is ahead of the curve by producing a document entitled Ireland's Aviation Restart Plan that it published on 14 April. The forum has made some very sensible proposals. An awful lot of research was done and there are about 14 recommendations. The forum set out a coherent plan for the recovery of the aviation sector. Of course it requires bringing to an end without delay the mandatory hotel quarantine aspect. The plan looks at the necessity to lift the ban on all travel except for essential travel. The forum does not prescribe or require that the ban is lifted today, tomorrow or next week. It just needs a roadmap or timeline for when we will get in line with other European countries. We introduced mandatory hotel quarantine but no-one else in Europe did it to the same extent. I was concerned about its introduction at the time because I thought it was a rather hasty response to where public opinion was at in that particular week. Public opinion changes very quickly when other fundamentals change. With a third of the population now having their first vaccine, I can assure the Minister of State that if he did a vox pop or any kind of polling or testing that he would discover that attitudes have changed dramatically. Also, the people who I met along the way who wanted hotel quarantining on a particular day now have shifted their focus and attention to getting on with their lives, so we need to be much more flexible. That is why I had real concerns about its introduction but it now has the capacity to be a major inhibitor to the recovery of the aviation sector, which employs 150,000 people. Notwithstanding the positive impact that the aviation sector has on our tourism and hospitality sectors, another 150,000 people, and perhaps more, are directly affected by not having international tourists.
To conclude, we need a wider perspective. This is why the role that the Minister of State plays, from a European perspective, can help in developing a bilateral arrangement with the United States because that is really important for the aviation and tourism sectors.