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'not safe' Doubts over Christmas homecomings at airports as Holohan issues new warning on international travel

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Dr Tony Holohan, chief medical officer at the Department of Health (Brian Lawless/PA)

Dr Tony Holohan, chief medical officer at the Department of Health (Brian Lawless/PA)

Dr Tony Holohan, chief medical officer at the Department of Health (Brian Lawless/PA)

THERE are fresh doubts about the prospect of Christmas homecomings at airports as Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan issued a new warning on international travel.

He bluntly told the Oireachtas Transport Committee: "The situation at the moment is international travel of a non-essential nature is not safe”.

Mr Holohan did express optimism that the current Level 5 rules will see Covid-19 rates go low enough so that the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) can recommend a change to the restrictions by December 1.

But he said it's "simply not possible" to look forward six weeks to say whether non-essential international travel will be allowed at Christmas.

His remarks came in response to a question from Fianna Fáil TD Cathal Crowe on whether international travel will be safe and possible between now and Christmas.

Mr Holohan warned: "movement of populations around areas with high experience of this disease particularly Europe and North America in and out of this country is not safe.”

He was asked about plans to implement the EU's new 'traffic light' system for travel which will categorise countries into green, orange and red countries.

Mr Holohan said: "The vast majority of countries are red and getting redder.

"That’s the current situation. That’s the reason we’re concerned about international travel at this point in time.

"We’ve been experiencing a level of improvement very few other countries have been able to report and we need to hold on to that.”

Earlier Mr Holohan outlined the risks posed by travel and outline how the impact of cases imported from abroad is "all the greater" as Covid-19 levels drop in Ireland.

The Committee has been hearing from airlines and airports in recent weeks who are keen to see restrictions on air travel eased amid the devastating impact on the industry.

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However, Mr Holohan's remarks will provide little comfort to the aviation sector.

A statement he sent to the Committee outlined how the 6,058 cases notified here in the week up to October 29 is a 26pc drop on the previous week.

Mr Holohan will also say how there were 103 deaths reported in October compared to five and 36 with a date of death in August and September respectively.

His statement says the epidemiological profile in Ireland is occurring in the context of widespread resurgence of disease across Europe.

He told TDs and Senators that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that the number of new cases in Europe is increasing exponentially, with over 1.3million new cases recorded during the most recent seven-day reporting period.

"Against this backdrop there is a substantial risk associated with international travel at the current time," he said.

Mr Holohan said: "Once we bring the disease under control in Ireland, it will be necessary to manage very carefully the risks of importation.

"In circumstances of sustained low levels of domestic transmission, the relative impact of imported cases is all the greater, as was seen in Ireland at times during the Summer when travel related cases at times accounted for approximately a quarter of cases at times.”

Mr Holohan added: "The area of international travel, which will represent a prominent area of risk as the disease comes under control nationally and we subsequently aim to maintain suppressed disease activity and low incidence rates.”

He said that officials from across Government and the Department of Health are working on implementing the EU 'traffic light' system for international travel.

Mr Holohan said: "It is important that countries adopt approaches that facilitate travel, especially essential travel, while ensuring that those who need to travel are not posing an additional risk to the wider populace.”

He stressed that countries that have brought in PCR Covid-19 testing as part of their travel policy "have tended to do so as part of a suite of measures applying to international travel, often including even more restrictive measures than apply here such as travel bans, mandatory quarantines and border closures.”

In his statement Mr Holohan also said: "Our own experts and many of their counterparts internationally consider that, should testing of asymptomatic passengers be introduced, a 5-7-day period of restricted movement, with a symptom check and test on day 5, is the most efficient method to contain importation of the virus.”

But he also warned: "This approach can still miss up to 15pc of the imported cases.”

On rapid antigen testing Mr Holohan says the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) recently assessed such technology as an alternative to lab-based PCR testing.

He said: "Hiqa’s findings confirm the WHO advice which shows that the currently available Rapid Antigen Detection Tests are not suitable for use in screening asymptomatic people with an unknown levels of disease, such as arriving passengers.”

Mr Holohan said: "While long-term travel restrictions are of course difficult, we need only to look to the travel policies of countries that have achieved sustained low rates of transmission, particularly countries in Asia, to see the importance of controlling importations.”

He added: "Our core national objectives are to maintain the safe reopening our education and health sectors, and to protect our vulnerable populations.

"Achieving these goals is predicated on maintaining low rates of transmission and avoiding an ongoing reseeding of cases for example through travel."

Asked about Christmas travel by Committee chairman, Fine Gael TD Kieran O'Donnell, Mr Holohan said: "It's a hypothetical question still, because the advice that has to pertain in relation to travel in the second half of December… relates to a whole lot of factors that are simply unknowable at this point in time."

He said: "I understand completely, the sensitivity there will be for families that are thinking about these kinds of arrangements and wishing to come back together.

"Probably families that have not seen each other for many, many months. I understand all the implications that has for the airline industry.

"We're simply trying to in as dispassionate, and as evidence-based a way as possible, advise on what we think the risks are and how best to ameliorate and address those risks".

Mr Holohan said that cases were at a five-day average of around 1,100/1,200 a day at the time that Level 5 restrictions were recommended.

He said the goal is to get to a reproductive rate of 0.5 and that it stood at 1.0 last week.

He said if this happens there should be less than 100 cases per day.

Mr O'Donnell asked if the country will come out of Level 5 lockdown on December 1.

Mr Holohan said: "We're optimistic that we’ll find ourselves in the situation where we'll be able to recommend a change in the measures that are in place at that point in time...

"We’ll make those assessments right the way up to the very last minute... before the government sits to make whatever decisions it would have to make."

Labour TD Duncan Smith pointed out that while Nphet makes assessment at a point in time airlines and airports have to be able to plan for the spring and summer 2021.

Mr Holohan said Nphet are "confident" that the rate of the disease can be brought to low levels by December 1.

He said that if this can be maintained and people comply with restrictions, including those related to travel that "pushes out the chance of any further resurgence as far as possible into the future."

He said: "The reality for international travel is, the more that we have control on an international basis as a shared experience across countries, the better we'll be positioned resumption of that kind of activity."

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