Overhaul Covid airport testing 'to get people home for Christmas', urges Oireachtas committee

Overhaul Covid airport testing 'to get people home for Christmas', urges Oireachtas committee

The Oireachtas Transport Committee said the Government should take a new approach to the EU's Covid traffic lights system and subsidise PCR testing at Irish airports to get the cost down to €50 or less.

The Government is being urged to tone down its advice against non-essential air travel this Christmas and allow Irish people to come home by providing affordable Covid testing at airports.

The Oireachtas Transport Committee of TDs and senators said the Government should take a new approach to the EU's Covid traffic lights system and subsidise PCR testing at Irish airports to get the cost down to €50 or less.

The committee wants the Government to work with airports to bulk up PCR testing for pre-departure travellers to regions designated 'orange' under the traffic lights guidance and also bolster the current regime for testing people who have arrived five days after flying in from the 'red' regions.

But it wants the Government to go further by insisting that passengers from both 'orange' and 'red' regions are required to get a negative test for Covid taken three days before departure, meaning they need not face travel restrictions when they get here.

As for non-EU countries, such as the US and Canada where there is no current travel lights advisory system, the committee urges the Government to immediately strike bilateral agreements so that Irish people can come home for Christmas, said its chair, Fine Gael's Kieran O'Donnell.

Subsidies for PCR testing will be required because airports are facing historic financial losses from the Covid crisis.

Dublin and Cork airports-owner, the Daa, has signalled it will lose more than €150m this year across all its businesses which include major international operations. The regional airports, Kerry, Ireland West, and Donegal, are also likely heading for record losses because airlines have cancelled many routes during the pandemic.

Moreover, the committee said the focus on testing should mean the Government "proactively engages" with other European countries to validate rapid antigen testing, which it says could play a big part in helping the recovery of safe air travel next year.

The major report follows its widespread consultations with airports, unions, airline staff, as well as Transport Minister Eamon Ryan and Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan, but appears to push back against the health advice of officials for Irish people to think twice before travelling back for Christmas.

Citing recent research from European health experts, Mr O'Donnell said air travel was relatively less risky than the spread of the disease in the community but that the risk applying to travel on airplanes could be tackled by introducing a robust and common testing regime for both 'orange' and 'red' countries.

Some of the recommendations were controversial but were based on empirical work, said Mr O'Donnell.

“We believe what we are putting forward is safe; it provides a situation whereby people on an airplane will know that all the other passengers are testing negative," said Mr O'Donnell.

On support for airports, the committee wants the Government to extend a rebate scheme and for it to secure funding for routes and approval from the EU under state aid rules.

It wants the wage subsidy scheme to apply for all types of tourism businesses next year and for national aviation policy "to be fast-tracked".

It also wants funding for airports that runs to 2025 to apply to Shannon and Cork airports for capital and operating expenditures and to reestablish what it calls "a CIE model" for the three major airports that would bring Shannon, Cork, and Dublin back under the same state body.

Airports and trade union Fórsa said they welcomed the recommendations.

Cork Airport managing director Niall MacCarthy said it welcomed, in particular, the recommendations on developing speedy antigen testing.

“Dublin and Cork airports are at the heart of an aviation ecosystem that is vital to the Irish economy and that ecosystem has been devastated by the impact of Covid-19 this year,” said Daa chief executive Dalton Philips.

He said figures from Eurocontrol on air traffic control in 41 European states showed that "Ireland’s connectivity has been among the most damaged during the pandemic”.

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