Stormont’s leaders have criticised the Irish Government for failing to share information on travellers arriving on the island during the pandemic.
First minister Arlene Foster said repeated attempts by the Executive to access data on passenger locator forms filled out by people arriving in the Irish Republic had proved unsuccessful.
Her comments came after the Stormont Executive agreed new restrictions on international travel into Northern Ireland that will require arriving passengers to produce a negative Covid-19 test undertaken within 72 hours of departure for the region.
Decisions to introduce similar measures have already been taken in the Republic, as well as in England and Scotland.
Unfortunately, this has been a long-running saga about travel locator forms
Mrs Foster said the administration was elevating the issue around data sharing with their counterparts in Dublin to try to secure progress.
The first minister said she and deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill would be again raising it directly with Taoiseach Micheál Martin.
Mrs Foster said the data gap was of particular concern at Christmas when a large number of people arrived into the Irish Republic, with many subsequently travelling north.
“Unfortunately, this has been a long-running saga about travel locator forms,” she said.
“I do recall when we were at an NSMC (North South Ministerial Council meeting) in Dublin, I think it was July, the issue was raised at that meeting. I know for sure that the minister of health (Robin Swann) has been raising it on numerous occasions at meetings and indeed in correspondence with his counterpart in Dublin (Stephen Donnelly).
“So it has been going on for far too long, and I think there was a general feeling of frustration around the whole of the Executive table that we need to get a solution to this and we need to do it now.”
She added: “The Attorney General (Paul Gallagher) in the Republic has appeared to confirm that there should be no legal impediment to sharing that information so ministers have asked us to elevate the matter and raise it again urgently with the Taoiseach.”
Ms O’Neill echoed Mrs Foster’s frustration.
“We’ve made the case on the travel locator forms on many occasions,” she said.
“I certainly raised it as recently as yesterday evening with the Taoiseach.
“This has been raised at NSMC meetings, it has been raised repeatedly, so the issue needs to be resolved.”
Ms O’Neill noted that a request from the Stormont Executive last summer for the UK and Irish governments to convene a summit to discuss travel issues affecting the islands due to Covid-19 had been acted on.
“It’s a very common sense approach that I’m asking for which is the sharing of information, which is how can we collaboratively work together to ensure that we put people’s interests first and we make sure that we protect lives and livelihoods,” she said.
“So that’s why we are asking for the conversation again with both the Taoiseach and the British prime minister, because now is the time to have a clear two islands approach, because I think we’re all at a critical juncture in terms of the virus spread.
“So it’s really, really important and vital that we get this conversation now.”
At Thursday’s Executive meeting, ministers also heard that current lockdown measures appear to be working, with the virus reproduction number for cases in the community having fallen to between 0.7 and 0.9.
Ministers were also told that 5 per cent of the population – more than 102,000 people – had now received a Covid-19 vaccine, making Northern Ireland one of the most advanced places in the world in terms of vaccine roll-out.