Ireland’s economy will “not survive” if only essential travel is allowed and the country’s tourist and hospitality industry will “starve on domestic staycations alone”, an aviation taskforce established by the government has warned.
In a final report delivered today, the taskforce has insisted that international air travel must be permitted, despite concerns that opening borders could bring huge health risks.
“Ireland cannot function as a closed economy without permanent damage being done,” the taskforce headed by technology entrepreneur Chris Horn said.
It also said that if airlines are now forced to abandon routes and operations they’ve just reopened, the consequences could be dire for the aviation sector.
“Whilst the aviation industry is seeking to try to re-build business as quickly as possible, having to abandon routes or abort operations after just a short number of weeks of re-opened operations would be immensely costly and detrimental to both the recovery in the aviation sector and to other sectors reliant on aviation,” it warned.
But there are fears Ireland is already at risk from a surge in Covid cases as people were infected abroad come home.
Of the 23 new Covid cases reported in Ireland on Wednesday, 15 were directly or indirectly due to foreign travel. Nine of the cases were due to one travel cluster.
Airlines including Ryanair have already boosted their flight schedules, with carriers including Aer Lingus offering ticket deals to customers.
People travelling to Ireland from abroad are currently advised to self-isolate for 14 days after arrival.
Citizens here are still being advised not to engage in non-essential foreign travel.
A so-called ‘Green List’ of countries with similarly low infection rates to Ireland’s is due to be published on July 20. That list will indicate countries where travel to and from Ireland can be undertaken without any restrictions.
“We must together apply our best efforts and insights on how to economically co-exist with the virus and, as an island nation, this has to include international travel,” said the taskforce today.
Amongst the measures it has proposed is a comprehensive track and trace programme.
“The aviation sector believes that the economy as a whole would be strengthened if a well-funded, very highly efficient test, track and trace scheme at scale was made widely available nationwide and which could turn-around results quickly,” it said. “Testing should be free, so that routine testing can become a cultural norm and provide public reassurance.”
The group held a virtual meeting today with newly-appointed Minister for Climate Action, Communication Networks and Transport, Eamon Ryan, and Minister of State Hildegarde Naughton.
“Businesses face potential liability from employees if they ask staff to fly internationally to business meetings whilst the government advice is for ‘essential travel’ only,” the taskforce said in its final report.
“Much of our key business and services sectors – including high technology, software, pharmaceutical, medical, finance, food and beverage – cannot survive indefinitely with Zoom-like calls,” it insisted. “Face to face meetings are required for international business development, new commercial relationships, market expansion, major sales, raising of finance, and mergers and acquisition activity.”
The taskforce has recommended that the government should provide a rebate directly to the airlines of all Dublin Airport charges and air navigation charges as paid by the airlines.
It also said a stimulus package should be put in place concurrently for each of Cork, Shannon, Ireland West, Kerry and Donegal airports to encourage the rebuilding of traffic.
“The Taskforce urges the Minister to initiate a process for considering a renewal of the National Aviation Policy, with an appropriate forum and process for all stakeholders to be able to engage, and to produce an outcome over the coming months,” it added.
On receiving the Final Report, the Minister for Climate Action, Communication Networks and Transport, Mr Eamon Ryan, T.D said:
“I wish to thank Chris Horn and the Taskforce Members for the Final Report, which clearly sets out the contribution that aviation makes to the Irish economy and the scale of the financial and operational challenges the sector, is facing as a result of Covid-19. As the report acknowledges, there are difficult choices to be made, balancing public health with economic concerns. Aviation provides a large number of high value jobs, and it generates many more in the wider economy, and especially in the tourism sector. Protecting these jobs and people’s livelihoods is a priority for the Government. The Government is finalising plans to aid economic recovery, and the recommendations contained in this Report will contribute to our overall response to the aviation crisis.”
Aer Lingus also welcomed its publication but said Ireland has failed to act upon the European Commission's request to Member States to lift all border restrictions to allow free movement of people within the Union by June 15. The company said Government policy therefore appears to be shifting towards a Covid-19 elimination strategy, rather than one of containment and economic co-existence with the virus.
The airline said, "The full economic consequences of such a shift in policy and of Ireland being 'Closed for Business’ would be profound and will need to be assessed and quantified.
"There are inevitable consequences for the prospects of recovery in the aviation and tourism sectors and for employment within these sectors," the statement read.