Ireland

Hopes that new rapid testing regime will make it easier for those planning trips home to Ireland this Christmas

THE GOVERNMENT IS pushing to have a rapid testing regime up and running by next month to ensure that friends and families can travel to visit their loved ones this Christmas.

This week, Cabinet agreed to align Ireland with the EU traffic light system.

Under the plan, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control will publish a weekly map of the EU using a three-stage colour system to indicate the level of risk in each area.

Levels will be determined by a variety of epidemiological factors including the 14-day incidence per 100,000 population and the level of positive tests.

The National Virus Reference Laboratory (NVRL) is currently carrying out a validation process on LAMP testing, it is understood. If approved by the Department of Health, the new test could be incorporated into Ireland’s testing regime in order to open up international travel again.

The LAMP test uses a throat and nose swab and differs from a PCR test, which is used by the HSE to detect the presence of Covid-19 at its test centres around the country. The LAMP test can be processed quickly without being sent to a laboratory.

Currently, the only validated test recognised in Ireland is the PCR test. After someone is swabbed, the PCR test has to be sent to a lab for analysis. The new LAMP test does not, and can deliver results in an hour or so.

The new EU travel system, which Ireland has agreed to align to, is based on regions rather than countries.

The government has set 8 November as its target to get the new travel plan up and running, and while ministers are unsure that the new LAMP test will be ready to be rolled out by that date, they are hopeful. 

The new system should allow for relatives and friends to return home to Ireland for Christmas this year.

While the current requirement for a person to restrict their movements for 14 days following arrival from a ‘red’ region remains until further notice, the Government is planning that as soon as it is practicable, this requirement can be waived following a negative result from an approved Covid-19 test taken five days after arrival.

From midnight on 8 November – the date the new traffic light travel scheme comes into effect in Ireland – the requirement for those arriving from orange locations to restrict their movements can be waived, if they have a negative test result up to three days before arrival.

This test must be conducted by an authorised entity recognised within that member state.

For example, if someone is travelling from France, its validated test is recognised by the health authorities in France. That will be deemed effective for people travelling to Ireland from midnight on Sunday, 8 November.

As of that date, people returning to Ireland from the orange list countries will be able to do so safely do so if they have a pre-departure test.

Children under 6 will be exempt from the testing requirement.

A senior cross-departmental technical working group will report back to Government in November with a plan to establish approved Covid-19 tests for international arrivals, taking into consideration testing options, standards, and operational implementation. 

In terms of passenger departures from Irish airports, it is understood that plans are afoot to have pre-departure testing at Irish airports by next month.

The Dublin Airport Authority (DAA) has already stated that it has teams “ready to go”.

Earlier this month, DAA boss Dalton Philips said his organisation had proposals for pre-departure PCR testing at Dublin and Cork airports by mid-October, with capability to deliver up to 15,000 tests per day.

He said: “We’ve got capacity to do it.”

However, he added that while the airport has teams ready to carry out testing, he does not believe that the PCR test – which can take a few days to deliver a result – is the ideal solution to get international travel up and running again.

Due to this factor, it is understood that DAA is sourcing rapid tests for use.

Rapid testing, such as the LAMP test mentioned above, is being used by other airports around the world to ensure safety while travelling. 

Passengers flying from London Heathrow to Hong Kong will soon be able to have a rapid Covid-19 test at the airport before checking in, for instance.

Ministers are keen to have a system up and running soon to allow friends and family reunite for Christmas.

A spokesperson for Transport Minister Eamon Ryan said:

“With the high incidence rate of the virus in Ireland and abroad, it is very hard for anyone to make Christmas plans.

“We recognise that it has been a very difficult year for those who miss family and friends. It is hoped that travel may be possible at Christmas time and that a testing regime will help to facilitate that. There should be no non-essential travel during Level 5.”

Junior Minister for Transport Transport Hildegarde Naughton said last week that the new traffic light system is important “because many of our friends and families may be returning home for Christmas and we are very conscious of the timing”.

On the issue of testing, Naughten said that it is “fast-moving situation and will require an all-of-government approach, balancing public health with keeping an open economy and connectivity”.

With Ireland signed up to the EU travel approach, it is now it is up to individual member states to work on their own testing regimes.  

The 8 November is Ireland’s “national deadline” to get a system for travel both in and out of the country up and running, according to Naughten.

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NPHET’s concerns on travel

However, there are some concerns at government level that despite the November date being set, that the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) may begin to ratchet up their reservations about international travel in the run up to Christmas. 

NPHET previously advocated for all arrivals into the country to be quarantined for 14 days in separate facilities once off the plane – something the government ruled out from the beginning.

It has been acknowledged by ministers that throughout the pandemic, Ireland has had one of the strictest approaches to international travel. 

One government source said it is “really important” that people can return home to visit their loved ones this Christmas, especially if the country is on the far side of a second wave. They added that it would be wrong to stop it.

Some in government circles believe that NPHET could raise concerns about the categories of travellers that are exempt from the requirement to undergo quarantine measures under the new EU travel plan, stating that the new regime might be too “liberal” for some. 

The government has already agreed to the list of exempted categories of travellers under the new EU plan. 

Under the traffic light system, travellers who are exempt from the requirement to undergo quarantine measures include:

When asked at an Oireachtas Committee last week if NPHET would have to sign off on any new travel system and testing regime, Naughten said: 

“This will be a Government decision.”

She said obviously the government will consult the Department of Health and public  health officials, but the decision would be made by government.

“None of us wants the virus being brought to Ireland and causing more issues. We must protect our testing regime. This is about instilling confidence in passengers who want to travel. No one will travel if he or she does not have faith in our testing regime. We must grapple with this situation.

“It will help tourism and FDI [foreign direct investment] in time, but we will be a red zone country for the next six weeks. I hope that we will come out of that.

Of those passengers who normally would fly to Ireland, 90% are from red zone countries. No one would want to come to Ireland while we were in level 5 anyway. Like our hotels and restaurants, we are not open. However, this is an important six-week window for us to prepare.

Regarding rapid testing she said: 

“I do not know if a second type of test will be validated in that time,” adding that work on validating the loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP) test and other types of tests is underway.

If the LAMP test is validated it will be approved by the Department of Health and can be incorporated that into Ireland’s testing regimes, Naughten has confirmed.

The goal in implementing the EU traffic light approach is to have a robust system in place so aviation can begin to recover when virus levels reduce, Minister Ryan said.

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