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 le gach duine a ghlac páirt sa díospóireacht thábhachtach seo inniu. Like everybody who has spoken here today, airport workers and airline workers are my friends, my neighbours, my relations, and my constituents. This is an issue of great importance to me, but also to the Government as well. They have been in such a difficult position for the past year or more and they have lived with such uncertainty. I see great anxiety among them. I do not blame them for that for a moment. The uncertainty is leading to anxiety. Unfortunately, uncertainty is par for the course during a pandemic. What is happening with this proposal is a desire, not just to open up aviation, but to ensure that our fundamental rights as citizens of the EU can be vindicated.

A number of issues were raised during the debate and I will try my best to address them. To be clear: the digital green certificate is designed to facilitate travel between EU member states. It may be renamed in the negotiations but that is what it is called at the moment. It is not designed as a domestic passport. It is not designed as a vaccine passport. I heard many colleagues mention that today. It is simply designed to assist people to get across the border of another country.

What is happening currently is that Ireland is already accepting vaccine certificates from certain people. It allows people not to go through mandatory hotel quarantine in certain circumstances. We are already doing that, but there is no standard way of doing it. We are already accepting negative test results, but people who are currently on essential travel at the moment with negative test results have to make sure they have them in the right format. A text from the HSE is not enough. Is the letter or email a person has from the test company enough? Nobody knows what the standard is. The digital green certificate will facilitate essential travel. The current approach is non-standardised across the European Union. People currently on essential travel do not know what their airline will look for or whether what is required in one member state is different from what is required by another member state. I accept that very few are travelling but some people must travel.

A number of speakers addressed the potential challenges of the digital green certificate and I accept there are challenges involved in implementing it. Every member state is facing those challenges. What is happening is that the European Commission has a technical working group on it. It published many of the technical specifications for this online. We can see them on the Commission's website.This happens through ehealth at EU level. The Irish Government is fully participating in this. The Commission has also offered financial support to member states to put this in place. It is my understanding that the Government has applied for financial support from the Commission to put this in place.

This will happen and when the regulation is in place and when it becomes effective it will be a legal obligation of the State to provide this and a legal right of citizens to have it. I emphasise again that this is not a vaccination certificate. Some member states may let a person in for holidays on the basis of a negative tests result and the person may not be vaccinated at all. That is a matter for those member states. They will make that decision and we will make our own decisions. I hope it will be soon enough but we must continue with the vaccination programme to work its magic in greater numbers. We will make those decisions but there will be countries that will let tourists in simply with a negative result, and the digital certificate will work for that scenario. This will not be a vaccination certificate. No decisions have been taken about domestic use. We need not be worried about a Big Brother scenario in this context. It is simply for the pandemic, it is time limited and it will not last forever. Vaccination will not be a requirement for free movement. This is why there are three parts to the certificate.

Senator Martin and others have raised the very important point of global solidarity. We beat ourselves up too much in this regard. President von der Leyen was correct yesterday when she said that the EU is the pharmacy of the world. The same amount of vaccine doses provided in the EU has left the EU as exports. Through the EU, Ireland has been to the fore with the COVAX programme in donating vaccine to poorer countries, including to the Palestinian territories. We have seen the great success story in India, but the Palestinian territories have had to rely on charity from others, and assuming from their own resources also. As well as this, the HSE and the Government have provided huge amounts of oxygen-related equipment to India this week, which is very welcome. We can beat ourselves up too much on this. President Biden has announced the trade-related intellectual property rights, TRIPs, waiver on vaccine patents, which is welcome. No vaccines have left the United States of America, however, or at least until now, whereas they have left the European Union.

I take on board Senator McDowell's comments and there is no doubt that what has happened during the pandemic will be looked at. We all know neighbours and friends who have died. My deepest sympathies to everyone who has been affected by this. Each case is a tragedy. The death rate in Ireland, however, is among the lowest in Europe. There are various reasons for that, but it is not down to a shoddy health service. It is down to excellent healthcare, to the protective measures taken by the State, and to the priority we put on it. So far so good, but one can never predict with this pandemic. We certainly do not want to do that. The vaccination is working its magic. It was announced today that one in three people have had their first dose and we have really seen the acceleration of the programme over the past few weeks in particular. The Government has taken decisions on a graduated basis to open up the country and, undoubtedly, the Government will take decisions in the near future on international travel.

I assure Senators that all of the challenges faced with regard to the digital green certificate are being advanced, in parallel with the negotiations happening at European Union level. These negotiations are due to finish in early June, when the European Parliament will hold a final vote, and then the Council must approve it also. Ireland does not have absolute control over that. It is going to happen. In parallel, we are working to make sure we are ready for it at the time we are legally advised to have it in place. The digital green certificate will be embedded into current travel measures to reflect the care we are already taking to mitigate the risks of importing further cases of Covid-19 and new variants of concern into Ireland.

Ireland has only closed its border once for essential travel, to Britain for a few days at Christmas. I am sure that all Members were inundated with calls from people about absolutely essential travel at that time and who had to come home. The Government at the time arranged for aeroplanes to get people out of Britain who had to come home. We saw how necessary aviation was at that point. Other member states have imposed travel bans. We have been banned from travelling to certain member states over the course of the pandemic, which were temporary measures. Mandatory hotel quarantine has not been implemented in every member state. Ireland has brought in the measure and Britain has introduced a form of it. Even there, credit is given for vaccination, which is very welcome. I am aware that the Commission has been in touch with the Department of Health in this regard. These measures are taken on a temporary basis in the interest of public health. Senator Doherty referred to the sunset clause in such tough legislation, which it is.The focus, of course, is on maintaining control over the disease, preventing a further wave of infection which occurred in Chile after it reached a 50% vaccinations target. We always have to be careful never to take anything for granted. We must support the health service, which has been pushed to the limit. It needs to deliver the vaccination programme. Today, one in every three people has been vaccinated with a first dose. That is a fantastic achievement on the part of the HSE, the Department of Health, vaccinators, staff and volunteers. There are many volunteers working at vaccination centres and it is important to recognise them.

The Government continues to work strenuously with EU colleagues in the context of the pandemic to ensure co-ordination and alignment wherever that is possible. Covid-19 is a global challenge and we are committed to continuing to work with other EU member states and international partners to address it together.


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