Thursday, 30 September 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit, an Teachta Butler. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir Currie as ligean dom labhairt ar dtús. I have a couple of technical questions. I appreciate that the Minister of State might not have all the technical answers but I trust that she will use her good offices to instruct officials to achieve clarity and to communicate. I initially submitted this matter to ask when the portal would be going live. We understand now that it was up yesterday but that it is going live today. Off the back of that, there has been some confusion. I would like to use this opportunity to give the Minister of State a platform to provide some information or get the word out because there are many watching this morning who want just that.
It is really welcome that this is happening in the first place and that citizens in the North, in particular, are able to avail of the EU entitlement, not least in the context of having lost so much as a result of Brexit.Will the Minister of State clarify that the way to obtain an EU digital certificate is through the online portal? Yesterday, it was the understanding of some people that if they did it through the Covid tracker app they would be able to get the EU digital certificate. It seems now that what they actually received is an EU-compliant proof of their vaccination in the North. Can one do it via the old app or is there a new app coming online or is the portal? What is the best way?
Second, in order to obtain the app through the portal one must have the North's digital certificate. That is only valid for three months and one must reapply each time. Do people have to reapply every three months for the EU digital certificate? Travel dates are required to obtain the digital certificate in the North. That is a problem for people who perhaps are not travelling but who want to travel from the North into the South and use their digital certificate to access entertainment, leisure or hospitality facilities.
Finally, the Minister of State will know that many people from the South, not least healthcare workers, were encouraged to get vaccinated in the North. In order for them to apply for the EU digital certificate they need a certificate from the North, but to get the North's certificate they must be resident in the North and, obviously, they are not. I said this would be technical and I hope I have not overwhelmed the Minister of State or other colleagues. I look forward to hearing from the Minister of State.
As the Senator said, this online portal is good news for Irish passport holders who were vaccinated in the North whereby they can apply for an EU digital Covid certificate. I, too, have technical questions.
What is the proof of vaccination that is required from the North? The Northern Ireland Covid vaccination certificate is issued by the Northern Ireland Department of Health so one must go through that portal process initially to get official proof of vaccination from the North. That comes from the nidirect.gov.ukwebsite. One acquires that first and it is that quick response, QR, code, one's second QR code, that one uses to apply through the portal,covidcertificateportal.gov.ie, for the EU digital certificate. I believe one must go through two portals and I am seeking confirmation of that. Is there a way to make it any easier? As my colleague said, the Northern Ireland Covid certificate is only for three months.
Some people think that if one just takes a picture of one's QR code and uploads it onto the Covid app, that is that. However, it is not as simple as that. We have to be very clear about that because it is all over social media. This has a big impact for cross-Border workers. There is a great deal of confusion so we must have very clear information. I believe it is where one received one's second vaccine that determines where one applies to gets one's proof of vaccination.
I have another question. Although this is a facilitator, one still has to check the requirements for the country to which one is travelling and then the requirements for when one is returning. I believe the reopen.europa.euwebsite is the best place to check that information. Perhaps the Minister of State will confirm that because I have encountered some confusion about whether somebody can travel from Belfast or Derry airports or whether it must be Dublin.
There are many technical questions. We had them when the EU digital certificate launched and we have them now. The more information the Minister of State can give to us to get the word out, the better.
I thank the Senators for their questions and I will do my best to answer them with the details that have been provided to me. I thank them for the opportunity to speak on the online portal. The EU digital Covid certificate introduced in July provides the framework for the issuance, verification and acceptance of inter-operable Covid certificates. The EU digital Covid certificate is a proof that a person has either been vaccinated against Covid-19, received a negative Covid-19 test result or recovered from Covid-19. They are the three criteria. The purpose of the digital Covid certificate is to facilitate free movement.
Due to significant and productive cross-government collaboration we were successfully able to overcome the initial impediments and complications that come with any large-scale project. With more than 4 million certificates issued, this project has helped support the safe reopening of our society. It has also been used in Ireland and in other EU member states, domestically, for facilitating safe access to indoor hospitality, supporting the reopening of our economy. Only a small number of EU countries, including France, are choosing to issue EU digital Covid certificates to their citizens who were vaccinated abroad. However, yesterday it was announced that we would take first steps towards implementing this option and expanding the service to allow Irish passport holders who have been vaccinated in a third country to access an EU digital Covid certificate. This service is now available to Irish citizens who have been vaccinated in Northern Ireland and it will extend to Irish citizens vaccinated in further areas outside of the EU in October.
The dedicated online portal currently accepts applications from Irish citizens vaccinated in Northern Ireland who hold a Northern Irish Covid vaccination certificate with a QR code. Irish citizens resident in Ireland who have been vaccinated in Northern Ireland may also apply. Through the online portal, individuals will be asked to upload a copy of their Irish passport, upload their reliable proof of vaccination in the form of their Northern Ireland vaccination certificate and give their consent to process the data for this specific purpose. If the person provides satisfactory proof of identity and vaccination, the EU digital Covid certificate will be sent to the person by email. The online portal will be expanded to accept applications from Irish citizens vaccinated in other non-EU countries from 21 October. Initially, therefore, it is for Northern Ireland and people living in the South who were vaccinated in Northern Ireland.
The EU digital Covid certificate initiative is quickly emerging as the robust international standard for Covid certification, as evidenced by the joining of an additional 16 countries which are recognised as equivalents under the initiative. The Government is pleased to be able to put Ireland in the lead in ensuring these certificates are more widely available to our citizens. Everybody will accept and acknowledge that there were impediments initially for the original digital Covid certificate, but they were ironed out very quickly. My 15-year-old received the second vaccine and by that evening the certificate had arrived, although it is not viable for 14 days until the timeline had passed. It is happening very quickly for somebody who receives the second Covid vaccine.
I hope I managed to answer most of the Senators' questions. If not, I will certainly get them a more comprehensive response.
The 50:50 approach is always good. I thank the Minister of State for her reply. I appreciate that there were many technical questions and we might need that additional information if she could furnish us with it.
I have two brief points, and Senator Currie referred to them. People had intended this from a genuine and sincere motivation. We are sure they were trying to assist online yesterday. However, what is clear to me, and we must get clarity on this if the Minister of State cannot give it, is that if people applied through the Covid tracker app yesterday they received an EU compliant certificate but they do not have the EU digital certificate. Some people are under the misapprehension that they have it, sin é, and they may not. I want to try to get that message out through this opportunity today.
There was talk about a dedicated helpline. It might be worth ensuring that it is up and running. With the greatest will in the world Senator Currie, myself and others will do our best to furnish people with information, but we are not the Department of Health so it would be good if that could get up and running as soon as possible for those who have questions. The Minister of State might also consider encouraging the Department to undertake a publicity drive in the North through some of the local newspapers whereby it could advertise the details of this so people will know and have a direct and local interface with this portal and will be able to get that information as close to home as possible.
We have to promote this with all the technical information to answer the questions people have. The important thing is that unless one gets an email from the Department to confirm that one has this, one does not have it. If it is arriving by email, we have to tell people that. It is not enough for them to go through their tracker apps.People have to go through the process of two portals and then it will arrive in their inboxes.
We have to accept that we do not have control over the efficiency of the first process and that there is a backlog. We will have to put that up the food chain and ask if the two Ministers can talk about this to make sure it is working as efficiently as possible. This is sensitive to us. It is about EU citizens being entitled to EU benefits and that is an important message.
To reiterate, through the online portal, individuals will be asked to upload a copy of their Irish passport, upload their reliable proof of vaccination in the form of their Northern Ireland vaccination certificate, and give their consent to process the data for this specific purpose. I am open to correction on this but I would imagine that given the way it has happened here, one's certificate would either be sent by post or email and in the main they were emailed. As I said, each applicant must show proof of a valid Irish passport and of their vaccination certificate with a quick response, QR, code issued by the Department of Health in Northern Ireland. The service is also available to Irish passport holders who are cross-border workers and who have received their vaccination in Northern Ireland. Every effort is being made to ensure that these certificates will be issued in a timely manner.
While the expansion begins with Irish passport holders vaccinated in Northern Ireland, it does not end there. Teams are currently assessing vaccine certificates issues from third countries to support the application process. Specific requirements for vaccination proof will be published prior to the launch of the second phase on 21 October. At this point, applications will be accepted from the Irish diaspora far and wide. The new portal will enable Irish citizens abroad to apply for an EU digital Covid certificate so I hope that answers the Senator's question. It is a new portal and not the app that is already there and citizens can use this to ease their travel across the EU.
The Senator raised the issues of collaboration between the two Ministers and the possibility of advertisements. I will bring all those issues back and hopefully Senators have received some new information today. It takes time for anything new to bed down but it is a welcome move that this is happening.
I did not know that. The fourth commencement matter was in my name and was on the need for the Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works to make a statement on the implications of the recent High Court order to temporarily halt the flood release works at Lough Funshinagh, County Roscommon. I have had to withdraw that Commencement matter and I will explain at a later date why it was withdrawn. I apologise to the Cathaoirleach and staff, who were good enough to accept it as a Commencement matter. Regrettably, I had to withdraw it. I thank Members and the staff for their co-operation.