The Minister for Health has said the Oireachtas Transport Committee is wrong to call for a relaxation on non-essential air travel around Christmas.
Speaking on Newstalk FM’s Breakfast, Stephen Donnelly said one of the big potential vectors for the disease was people returning to Ireland for Christmas.
The committee had called on Wednesday for affordable testing at airports to allow for a greater resumption of air travel and for Irish people to come home for the festive period.
However, Mr Donnelly said the Government and public health experts remained concerned about the need to “keep our shape and keep our discipline” and limit social interaction over the holiday period.
It puts lives at risk, it puts the nursing homes at risk
He explained concerns were based on the daily reports of the 14-day incidence rate of Covid-19 infection which had begun to increase five days ago.
The minister said the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) had advised him that there would be “serious exponential growth” in infection rates if the R number (reproductive rate) for Covid-19 increased above 1.2.
“It is something that nobody wants because it puts the hospitals at risk. It puts lives at risk, it puts the nursing homes at risk,” he said.
He pointed out that most countries in Europe were now branded red for travel purposes which meant anyone coming back for the holidays would have to quarantine for two weeks unless they got a negative PCR test after being back five days.
“What I’m saying, what the Government is saying and I think much more importantly what the public health experts are saying is if you need to come home for Christmas, of course come home,” he said.
Mr Donnelly said it was important that people also understood that the antigen tests proposed for use in airports by the committee were not as accurate as PCR tests.
The minister said public health experts had very serious concerns about such tests and pointed out that no country was using antigen tests for mass testing at airports.
Mr Donnelly said Nphet had advised him that Covid-19 tests at airports could give people “a false sense of security”.
As the Irish Examiner reports, 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-19 taken three days before departure, meaning they need not face travel restrictions when they get here.
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.
Mr Donnelly’s concerns about numbers travelling home to Ireland for the Christmas holidays were also supported by public health expert, Dr Gabriel Scally.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Radio 1’s Today with Claire Byrne show, Dr Scally said calls for an easing of travel restrictions over the holiday period were “a real recipe for a disastrous January and February.”