Seanad debates

Thursday, 5 November 2020

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

European Health Insurance Card

10:30 am

Photo of Niall Ó DonnghaileNiall Ó Donnghaile (Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister for Foreign Affairs for addressing this Commencement matter on the European health insurance card, EHIC. To be fair to him, he is always keen to come in to address Commencement debates on this issue, so I am appreciative of that.

I also acknowledge that there has been a lot of engagement on this issue in recent weeks. I noted the Minister's remarks on it at the recent meeting of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. I suppose that, 57 days out from Brexit, we have had a series of commitments and I think what people expect to see now is an outline of the mechanical, practical opportunities to retain the EU rights and entitlements that they have been promised they will be able to retain.

As the Minister is well aware because he will have heard it extensively in his engagements in the North, the EHIC is probably something that cuts across all the demographics and communities in the North. It is something that everyone going on holidays has availed of regularly. It is a very symbolic wee thing. It is a bit like the passport, in that it is a symbolic representation of being a European citizen and being entitled to access EU rights.

Like many people, I was very heartened and encouraged to hear remarks from the Government in April last year indicating that it would be prepared to cover the cost of retaining the EHIC for all citizens in the North. That is a very important step and I support it. I want to afford the Government an opportunity to speak through the Seanad to people in the North to give them another opportunity and platform to hear the practical steps being taken above and beyond that very important and sincere promise.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Ó Donnghaile for giving me the opportunity to put the commitment on the record here. At this stage, we are 50 something days away from the end of the transition period so things need to start coming together in many areas, not just this area. There is an awful lot of work going on in regard to that so I will just outline how it will work.

As Senator Ó Donnghaile noted, in April 2019 the Government sought to make arrangements so that the people of Northern Ireland would continue to have access to EHIC rights in the event of a no-deal Brexit. At that time, we were preparing for a situation where there might not be a withdrawal agreement.Now, of course, we are dealing with a different context. The withdrawal agreement, of which the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland is an integral part, is now in place between the EU and the UK and has the protection of international law.

The Government recognises the importance placed by residents of Northern Ireland on maintaining the EHIC equivalent rights. This matter is being addressed in discussions between the EU and the UK on the future relationship, which we continue to monitor.

We are also aware that in line with obligations under the withdrawal agreement, the UK Government will provide eligible EU nationals and their family members who are resident in the UK before the end of the transition period and, therefore, covered under the withdrawal agreement, with a UK-issued EHIC. Further clarity from the UK on this will be required in order to assess if there are any implications for Northern Ireland, including in relation to eligibility. In the event that these issues are not adequately resolved, preparations are under way for a scheme to ensure continued access to EHIC equivalent arrangements for eligible residents in Northern Ireland. The scheme under development would allow residents in Northern Ireland to seek reimbursement for the cost of necessary healthcare while on a temporary stay in another EU or EEA member state or in Switzerland, should it be required, from 1 January 2021.

The Department of Health is working to progress arrangements that are compatible with domestic and EU law and to ensure that the HSE has the necessary operational arrangements in place to administer this in the relevant scenario. Detail on this can be found in the Brexit readiness action plan, published on 9 September, and Part 3 of the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2020, published on the Oireachtas website on 29 October, which will be discussed with Members in the coming weeks. We will be in this House to discuss those issues probably towards the end of this month. I was planning to be here on 23 November.

More broadly, the EU rights of Irish and, therefore, EU citizens from Northern Ireland are specifically addressed in the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. The protocol confirms that Irish citizens in Northern Ireland will continue to enjoy, exercise and have access to rights, opportunities and benefits that come with EU membership. It is important to underline that under any scenario Irish citizens, no matter where they live, will continue to have EU citizenship. They will continue to enjoy the right to live and work throughout the EU and the right not to be discriminated against on the grounds of nationality.

While it remains our hope that access for Irish citizens in the North to certain EU programmes and benefits can be adequately addressed in the context of the future relationship, we are proactively working to ensure that the people or Northern Ireland can continue to enjoy access to EU rights, opportunities and benefits into the future, as they do today, including the benefits linked to holding a European health insurance card.

Photo of Niall Ó DonnghaileNiall Ó Donnghaile (Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister for his response, which was fairly comprehensive in one sense. I am not trying to catch anybody out or trip anybody up because I believe the Minister is committed to this. As he correctly acknowledged, we are 57 days out from the end of the transition period. People need to start hearing detail and have this issue explained to them so they understand it clearly. I appreciate also that there are current restrictions on travel but hopefully we will get through to the other end of that.

People need to hear and understand how this is measure will work. If it is the case that people will have to go through a process and then apply for reimbursement, inherently that will not be the same as retaining the current EHIC system. Without getting into the politics of the issue, if that is to be the reality, people need to understand. Will it still be a matter of going to a local post office to apply for this scheme? Will that option be available to them? How will reimbursement work and how long will it take? Will it be a fairly simple model? While I appreciate the Minister has flagged up the legislation that will come to the House, there is a very short window here.

I made the point to Government representatives this week that while this whole debate has understandably moved very firmly into the economic and trade realm recently, there has been a loss of focus on the very important issue of the retention of citizens' rights, certainly in the public domain.If the Minister is in a position to do so it might be something we could revisit. I cannot stress enough the importance of this scheme and the other schemes along with the issues he acknowledged in his contribution. We need to communicate to the communities in the North that are so affected by this. Along with the anxiety of Covid they are really uncertain. The promises are important and welcome. I take them in good faith. We now need to hear the mechanics of how that will work.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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We are putting in place a contingency plan in case the UK does not agree a resolution to this issue in a future relationship agreement with the EU. The hope and expectation is that we will be able to get a future relationship agreement that will involve the British Government signing off and agreeing on its citizens being able to access the equivalent of an EHIC-type scheme providing for reimbursement for medical costs if and when they are travelling around the EU.

A future relationship agreement could happen; we will have to wait and see how that develops in the next couple of weeks or even less than that. If that does not come off and there is no future relationship agreement, we have legislation coming forward similar to the Brexit omnibus Bill we introduced previously, which put contingency arrangements in place for a no-deal Brexit. It is now putting contingency arrangements in place for a no-future-relationship-deal Brexit. We will have an opportunity to tease through the details of that legislation when it comes through the House.

One of those elements is in this space. The Department of Health and the HSE are putting in place a scheme to ensure continued access to EHIC-equivalent arrangements for Northern Ireland citizens. Of course, that needs to be compatible with domestic and EU legislation. As I have said in the past, if necessary the Irish Government will pay for this showing a commitment to people in Northern Ireland to try to ensure that as they move through or go on their holidays in the European Union and if they run into difficulty and need to access health services and so on, there will be a reimbursement equivalent to EHIC which would obviously be as streamlined as we can make it for citizens to reimburse their healthcare costs through the HSE.

We will put in place a system that is as simple to administer and as streamlined as we can make it. We need to do it within our own legislative parameters and it also needs to be consistent with EU legislation. Of course, we do not control legislation in Northern Ireland. However, I think the Senator will recognise there is a serious commitment to this by the Government. He will see that in the legislation. The Department and the HSE have been working on this for some time to follow through on the commitment I made last year to people in Northern Ireland that not only will we pay for this, but we will also put a system in place to allow it to work if necessary.

The hope is that this will be resolved through negotiation on a future relationship in order that the British Government can announce something that is constructive and positive to deal with the concerns the Senator has rightly outlined.