State no longers asks passengers if their travel is ‘essential’

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The State has stopped collecting data on whether people are travelling into the State for an essential reason since early February, it has emerged, including seeking such information from those travelling from high-risk countries.

Replying to a parliamentary question from the Social Democrats TD, Róisín Shortall, the Department of Health said the passenger locator form was amended and “the declaration on essential travel [is] no longer recorded”.

According to figures collected for the first week in February, the last week when such information was sought from incoming passengers, 46.3 per cent of 12,659 people claimed they were travelling for essential reasons.

Ms Shortall, the Social Democrats’ co-leader, said there was no apparent reason why passengers were no longer being asked to state whether they were travelling for essential reasons.

“It seems to be a move which will only serve to obfuscate the facts on international travel. Why was this decision taken and are there any grounds for it?” she asked.

She said the Government should “be making every effort to increase transparency and public access to data, whether that is in relation to travel, vaccines or case numbers – not reduce it”.

Asked why the essential travel data was no longer gathered, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health said it was “removed from the form in February with the introduction of new regulations on mandatory quarantine”.

Restrictions on arrivals from Brazil and South Africa were imposed on January 26th, but plans to introduce mandatory hotel quarantine quickly have so far stalled.

Separate figures released to the Dublin North-West TD show that almost 10 per cent of people arriving into the State in February – after the Government announced its intention to clamp down on travel – are coming from or recently travelled through countries where “variants of concern” are prevalent, while new statistics show more than 4,000 people arrived from countries where there is heightened concern over coronavirus variants.

Category two countries

In all, 4,172 people arrived into the Republic from one of the 33 category two countries, or whose recent travel history included one. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), which is one of only two schedule two countries with direct links to Ireland, accounted for almost half of the arrivals, with 1,828.

Some 1,465 people were associated with recent travel from Brazil, while 313 reported South Africa on their forms. Austria, the only European country on the list, accounted for 149 arrivals, with 96 linked to Argentina, and 321 passengers disclosed recent travel to another of the 28 countries on the list.

The arrivals account for 8.6 per cent of passenger locator forms completed between February 8th and March 7th.

The Department of Health has said it is in advanced discussions with an operator for the mandatory hotel quarantine service, but an anticipated announcement of the counterparty to the deal and when the service would begin did not materialise this week.

Ms Shortall said the figures “underline how vulnerable we are to the importation of the virus from overseas”.

“It goes to show the important role for mandatory hotel quarantine, which needs to be implemented very quickly and be applied to passengers from all countries if we are in any way serious about protecting our public from further spread of the virus and these variants.”

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