The conflicting messages must stop – the Government’s plan for a ‘meaningful’ Christmas needs to be acted upon quickly
At first glance, public health experts may have seen it as good news.
The latest EU ‘traffic light' map shows Ireland as one of the few orange beacons surrounded by raging blobs of red.
Recent days have seen a worrying spike in Covid-19 figures, sure, but the overall trend has been positive during Level 5 lockdown. And here was proof.
The EU’s ‘traffic light' system updates every Thursday, rating regions ‘red’, 'orange’, ‘green' or 'grey’ based on their rates of coronavirus and positive test results. As of yesterday, Ireland's 14-day incidence rate was 121.3 per 100,000 people, and its seven-day test positivity rate was 3.8pc – enough to be stepped down from red.
This was progress, no?
The answer, as with everything to do with Covid-19, is complicated. As we’ve seen in recent days, both Government and Nphet continue to take a hard line on travel. Eager to discourage movement in Level 5, and to contain it as much as possible when restrictions ease, official advice remains to avoid all non-essential trips.
Some would like that to be the case until everybody had a vaccine.
But Christmas is coming. It's too early to say what way the pandemic will be blowing in five weeks’ time, but any Irish person who has been yearning to come home, or any family who has children or grandchildren overseas, will see this switching of the traffic lights as cause for hope.
Under the traffic light system, countries can decide what restrictions to place on travellers from ‘orange' or ‘red' areas, but generally speaking, ‘orange’ is an easier bar to pass.
From November 23, for example, Spain will require all arrivals from 'red' or ‘grey’ regions to carry negative PCR test results. This does not look like it will apply to travellers from 'orange' countries, though all tourists do need to show negative PCR or antigen test results on arrival in the Canaries.
The Canaries was another region to turn 'orange’ yesterday, and while we can't take holidays under Level 5, you don't have to be Hansel and Gretel to follow the breadcrumbs here.
If both regions stay orange, and lockdown restrictions loosen sufficiently, this means Irish people could in theory soon take a winter holiday and bypass quarantine at both ends by providing negative test results.
That’s anyone's definition of a “travel corridor”, and one reason Europe floated the whole traffic light system in the first place – to provide an extra layer of health security and enable people to plan.
Testing has picked up pace, too. Just over a week ago, there was no airport testing in Ireland. Now, there are several sites at Dublin, Cork and Shannon, with results available within a few hours.
Price is an issue. The cheapest private PCR test I have seen is €99 from RocDoc at Dublin Airport, which gives results in two to three days. Anyone looking to travel would presumably need a quicker turnaround however, meaning a private test costing at least €149... and the same again before you return home.
Ouch. But I can see why people may be prepared to pay.
Whatever about winter sun, Christmas trips are about more than holidays, too .For many Irish abroad, and their families at home, this is an emotional reunion looked forward to all year long. I’ll bet there are plenty out there who would stump up for a test if it meant seeing their loved ones, or whose loved ones would pay as a Christmas gift.
Is it coincidental that Ryanair has flights on sale from a fiver?
Which brings us full circle. These are exactly the kinds of conversations Nphet would prefer we did not have. Rather than flashes of ‘orange’ hope, it would prefer we bunkered down.
Of course there’s an argument for that. Travel has recently accounted for less than 1pc of Covid-19 cases in Ireland, but it clearly could have brought some critical early cases that seeded outbreaks. Public health experts are petrified that this might happen again, and every step towards a resumption of travel adds to the nerves.
No matter what side you fall on – pro-travel or anti-travel – this conversation only ends up in the same place. An Taoiseach has said we can aspire to a “meaningful" Christmas. Government has signed up to the traffic light system to safely restart travel. It has given the green light to PCR testing at our airports.
Now Level 5 is approaching its endgame. Christmas is five weeks out. Ireland is orange. We need the conflicting messages to stop, and to be given a plan we can rally behind for December and beyond.
And we need it fast.