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Northern Ireland: Flight Passengers and Covid-19

Volume 811: debated on Wednesday 28 April 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take to ensure that the necessary information about flight passengers who are crossing the border into Northern Ireland from outside the United Kingdom is shared with the Northern Ireland health authorities in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

My Lords, coronavirus restrictions, including the arrival of international travellers, are led by the Northern Ireland Executive. I am extremely grateful to the Northern Ireland Minister of Health who is working closely with his counterpart in the Irish Government to facilitate the sharing of data for international travellers travelling across the border. The Government continue to support ongoing co-ordination between the UK Government, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government as part of our collective ambition to drive the virus down.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. The common travel area is a very positive feature of life between the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic and has been so for many decades, predating our EU membership. Yet there remain serious problems with the Irish Republic carrying out the necessary urgent work needed to allow the sharing of information from Irish passenger locator forms for those transiting to Northern Ireland and to the rest of the United Kingdom. This delay is increasing the risk of the spread of Covid, especially variants coming into Northern Ireland and the UK. The Northern Ireland Health Minister that the noble Lord referred to expressed serious concerns as late as last week, in evidence to the Northern Ireland Assembly, about the dragging of feet. It has been flagged for many months. Will the Minister please raise this at the highest levels of the UK Government and ensure that action is taken to close this problem off?

My Lords, I recognise the challenge to which the noble Lord refers. It is, of course, a fact that coronavirus restrictions in Northern Ireland are determined by the Northern Ireland Executive as part of the devolution settlement, as I am sure he would recognise. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has raised the issue with the Irish Foreign Minister on a number of occasions to press for a resolution, and while the UK Government continue to work closely with the Executive to drive this virus down, we respect that healthcare is a devolved matter. This is a complex issue to resolve, but we are extremely grateful to all parties who are working hard to resolve it.

My Lords, the truth is that the Northern Ireland Health Minister, Robin Swann, found out that there were cases of the Indian variant of the virus in the Republic of Ireland only from media reports. This is deeply concerning, as was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dodds. Northern Ireland is part of the UK, so we have the same responsibilities to our fellow citizens in Northern Ireland and therefore it is very concerning. Is the Minister confident that, going forward, mutually beneficial data-sharing processes are in place to ensure that new variants are controlled and do not become seeded and spread in any of our communities?

My Lords, I am enormously grateful to the Irish Government for the very large amount of informal clinical data-sharing that goes on. CMOs of both countries exchange data on such matters as VOCs the whole time, and that kind of day-to-day clinical exchange of on-the-ground information works extremely well. The specific question of travel information is a lacuna that needs to be closed, I recognise that it needs to be shut, a lot of work is going on to shut it and I am grateful to those involved.

My Lords, I think noble Lords understand that there have to be special arrangements, and the common travel area seems to work well for most things. The Minister knows that I have asked him repeatedly about the joining up of data of international travellers between whichever border they arrive at, the NHS and the testing system, especially the private testing system, otherwise any self-isolation system will fail. Can the Minister say whether this gap that there was before has now been remedied, so that every part of the NHS can pick up data information from borders, and how it works across all four UK countries? Will he explain a bit more about the CTA arrangements between Westminster, Stormont and the Republic?

I reassure the noble Baroness that the data flows between borders, Test and Trace, NHS and JBC work extremely well. I was in the Covid Gold meeting earlier today and we had presentations that captured all the data flows from all those places, and we have extremely good see-through on VOCs, infection rates and bed occupancy. The progress we have made on that area is astounding. Where we have a lacuna is on the transfer of data from Irish travellers to Northern Ireland, and that is something we are working to close.

My Lords, I share the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, and others about data sharing between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Will the Health Minister use this opportunity to praise the vaccination programme in Northern Ireland and all those who have made it so successful, from the Health Minister, through the GP surgeries to the many volunteers who have made it so successful? Does this success in Northern Ireland not show how important the union is, and also how important it was that we left the European Union and did not have its regulations on vaccination, as the Republic of Ireland has had?

I am pleased to tell the noble Baroness that, as of 27 April, 1.2 million vaccinations have been administered in Northern Ireland, of which 919,000 were first doses and 356,000 were second doses. That is an astonishing figure. I am extremely proud of the figure and very grateful to all those concerned.

My Lords, I am pleased that the final Question in Question Time today gives us the opportunity to say something about the importance of co-operation between the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom. It is worrying that there is this lacuna; I wonder whether the expertise of the CAA is being brought to bear on it. Are there any problems because we have not yet got digital adequacy with the EU? Is that part of the lacuna? On the broader side, this Question and the earlier Question show that there is a need for a rapid response unit to deal with the genuine problems in the relationship between the Republic and Northern Ireland, and the inevitable consequences of the Brexit decision, which was facilitated by the DUP.

My Lords, I reassure the noble Lord that the issue is caused by no lack of friendship or spirit of collaboration between the two Administrations. The CAA and all the relevant authorities have a huge amount of commitment to resolving this. There are legal issues that require Acts of Parliament in Ireland and in Britain in order to resolve this; these are quite substantial legal commitments that need to be timetabled and conducted through Parliament, and that is what is holding things up. I am very grateful to all those who are trying to resolve the issue.