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Covid-19: Ireland

Volume 803: debated on Wednesday 20 May 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the government of Ireland about the development of a co-ordinated all-island approach to the lifting of COVID-19 related restrictions.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

The UK is committed to working with the Government of Ireland on our response to the Covid-19 pandemic. There have been regular discussions of our approach, including between Ministers and officials from the UK and Irish Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive. We are determined to work together to ensure that our measures safeguard the health and well-being of UK and Irish citizens and abide by our obligations under the Belfast Good Friday agreement and the common travel area.

My Lords, Northern Ireland is now involved in a contact-tracing programme. How much better would that be if it was done on an all-Ireland basis because of the local geography, as stated this morning by Professor Bauld from the University of Edinburgh? What concerted action will the Minister take with the Irish Government as co-guarantors of the Good Friday agreement to ensure that such an all-Ireland approach to contact tracing takes places to suppress the virus and save lives?

The noble Baroness is right in that making paths towards proper contact tracing is very important. We have very good co-operation between Northern Ireland and Ireland on this. The more rapidly we can identify those who have been in contact with those infected, the more quickly they can self-isolate and lower the R rate. I can tell the noble Baroness that much work is going on on developing one app. There are a couple of apps at the moment, and the two Governments are working closely together to look at the best way forward.

My Lords, in discussion with Ireland on the co-ordinated approach for lifting restrictions, when we find a vaccine for Covid-19, what are Her Majesty’s Government doing to prevent the anti-vaccine movement convincing people not to be vaccinated?

Clearly this is of concern. We will use all means possible to counter any disinformation that is circulated from that quarter. The key to bringing an end to this cruel virus is to find a vaccine against it, and we will recommend that people have it. Of course, the UK Government will license a vaccine only when it is effective and safe.

Does the Minister agree that Covid-19 has jolted us into interdependence and common concerns? Does he agree that co-operation and the development of a common strategy between Eire and Northern Ireland is necessary not only to help a smooth move out of the current lockdown but because the experience and trust gained will be invaluable in tackling economic and other areas of difference?

The noble Lord is absolutely right. Having clear co-operation on Covid-19 is incredibly important. The UK Government, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government share the goal of working together to ensure that we take complementary measures to safeguard the health and well-being of UK and Irish citizens.

As noble Lords are aware, between Great Britain and Ireland lies the self-governing British Crown dependency of the Isle of Man. Although its Parliament has total responsibility for Covid-19 matters, will the Minister bear in mind the island’s interests in any relevant joint discussions?

Yes, absolutely. I will take that back to the department. The Isle of Man is part of the common travel area, so we should bear in mind its interests in relation to Ireland and Northern Ireland in tackling this dreadful virus, and we do.

Is it not imperative that the lifting of restrictions in Northern Ireland takes full account of the Province’s unique position in relation to the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom and the common travel area? Is it not also desirable that testing and tracing practices should be closely aligned, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, has said? We should not require cross-border travellers to operate two systems—indeed, to have two different apps on their phones, as the Health Minister suggested. Is this not pursuing difference for difference’s sake?

The noble Lord is right in that, as I said earlier, we are developing an integrated test-and-trace programme. The details are rather sparse at the moment and conversations continue. It could be app, web or phone-based. I reiterate that this is a key way of helping us to work more closely together on getting out of this virus.

Were the Government aware that the Republic was going to impose a 14-day quarantine period on travellers from Britain when the UK Government had decided not to impose one on travellers from the Republic? What does the Minister think of the implications of this decision for the operation of the common travel area and the free movement of people within these islands?

The operation of the common travel area and free movement are vital. For those who fly into Ireland from outside the EU, there is a 14-day quarantine and people doing that will be advised to fill in a form so that addresses are known. People need to take responsibility, having come in. As I say, the common travel area is absolutely non-negotiable and should remain as is.

Given that there are 28 all- Ireland sports governing bodies, will the Minister seek as co-ordinated an approach as possible with the Government of Ireland for the lifting of restrictions covering sport, especially during steps three, four and five of the Northern Ireland Executive’s five-step plan?

Absolutely. My noble friend will know that Ireland has a timetable, a five-phase approach which includes the resumption of sports. Northern Ireland also has a five-point plan, which is understandably rather different and has no timetable. However, I will take his comments back and make sure that they are known.

Further to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, is the Minister aware that many citizens of Northern Ireland enter Great Britain via Dublin and Holyhead? In those circumstances, if Covid testing takes place, what will be the position of Northern Ireland citizens following that route? What discussion has taken place with the Welsh, Irish and Northern Irish Governments on the issue?

I cannot give the noble Lord specific details, but I can tell him that there are extremely close and regular links between the CMOs in all four nations. I am certain that these discussions will come up regularly. As I said, contact tracing within the four nations is incredibly important in terms of getting it right and managing it effectively.

Can the Minister say what monitoring and follow-up has been made of the working of the memorandum of understanding signed on 7 April between the Irish Government and the First Minister of Northern Ireland so that both Governments adopt similar approaches to Covid, as many noble Lords have mentioned, and therefore assist cross-border industries?

The noble Baroness is right that there is this memorandum of understanding. Health officials both north and south of the border are working closely together with the sole aim of making sure that there is a co-ordinated approach to tackling this virus.

Given that Covid-19 is a whole-of-government challenge, and arguably our most serious health and economic challenge since partition, have Her Majesty’s Government had or requested an online meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference? If not, why not, given the need to ensure that all levels of the two Governments are engaged in co-operating, and especially given that we have now left the EU, whose institutional meetings ensured regular intergovernmental contact between the UK and Ireland?

I will take that point back, but the noble Lord will know that there are constantly meetings going on at different levels, not only between the UK Government but, much more to the point in relation to the subject of this Question, between Northern Ireland and Ireland. I have not mentioned the quad meetings. The Secretary of State speaks to party leaders regularly and, as I have mentioned, the CMOs speak regularly, so there are different areas. I will certainly take that point back.