The Department of Health has declined to say whether or not there is a distinction between air travel and other forms of public transport in terms of the danger of spreading Covid-19 infection.
The news comes as Ireland’s consumer watchdog, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC), released guidelines regarding the sale and specifications of different grades of face mask, and warned that it would be testing them in order to ensure quality of standards.
As international flights begin to ramp up once more and as both of Ireland’s largest airlines in recent days outlined how they envisaged air travel working for them, attention has turned to their requirement for passengers to wear facial coverings.
Aer Lingus said it would be mandating facial coverings in line with Governmental guidance stating that masks or coverings should be worn in retail spaces or on public transport.
However, the official EU guidance on a return to air travel is that passengers should be encouraged to wear medical grade quality masks in order to best protect themselves. Medical grade quality masks are surgical standard, expensive, and currently not recommended for public use in Ireland in order to prevent a shortage for frontline health workers.
Aer Lingus said its approach to coverings on flights is an “appropriate” interpretation of the Governmental guidelines.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health, asked whether or not a difference exists between travelling on a bus and spending multiple hours on a pressurised airplane, said: “Current government guidelines advise against all non-essential travel. This includes travel overseas that would involve air travel.
“Wearing cloth face coverings may help prevent people who do not know they have the virus from spreading it to others."
With both Ryanair and Aer Lingus applying pressure in recent days for restrictions on air travel to be lifted, along with Ireland’s mandatory 14-day quarantine for inbound travellers, a row has broken out between Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary and Gabriel Scally, president of the epidemiology and public health at the UK’s Royal Society of Medicine.
Mr O’Leary suggested that Dr Scally ignored the “science” that suggested that a return to air travel is a safe proposition, with Dr Scally responding that the Ryanair chief “has a vested interest” in the issue.
“In my view, it’s a mass gathering," Dr Scally said last week. "You can’t have a couple of hundred people in a metal tube for several hours without there being a risk of transmission of the virus.”
Meanwhile, the CCPC has launched its ‘Guidance for Business re Covid-19 Face Masks’, in which it set out three separate categories in order of effectiveness - barrier masks, personal protective equipment (PPE) masks, and medical face masks.
The first two categories are regulated by the CCPC for consumers, while medical coverings are beholden to State agency the Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA).
By law, barrier masks, under a standard commissioned by the CCPC known as Swift 19, need to be labelled as such, together with instruction as to their correct use and whether or not they are reusable. They cannot be denoted as being PPE.
Isolde Goggin, chairwoman of the CCPC, told RTE Radio that the Commission has “already been picking up samples of different types of masks and we will be moving on to testing those”.
“We’ll be keeping an eye on this, both in terms of the consumer safety aspect and in terms of any misleading claims that people may be making for those products,” she said.