Restrictions on Travel from Spain

Question for Urgent Oral Answer — Health – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 27th July 2020.

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Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 2:00 pm, 27th July 2020

Mr Colm Gildernew has given notice of an urgent oral answer to the Minister of Health. I remind Members that, if they wish to ask a supplementary question, they should rise continually in their place. The Member who tabled the question will be called automatically to ask a supplementary question.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

Mr Gildernew asked the Minister of Health to outline the reasons for the change to restrictions in respect of travel from Spain, introduced on 26 July 2020.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I thank the Member for the question.

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, International Travel) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 came into operation on 8 June. On July 10, a list of exempt countries was inserted, allowing those who had been in those countries to be exempted from the self-isolation period of 14 days when they arrived in Northern Ireland. On Saturday 25 July, I made an urgent amendment to remove Spain from the list of exempted countries, meaning that, from Sunday 26 July, those arriving in Northern Ireland from Spain are again required to self-isolate for the full 14-day period.

My decision, which has now been supported by the Executive, was based on detailed scientific information that was shared with me on Saturday. The key points to note are that, since last week, the weekly case rate for Spain has broadly doubled; Spain is following the same trajectory as Serbia, which was removed from the regulations following the same process on 11 July; Spain now conducts fewer tests than the UK, so the true prevalence, compared with the UK, could be higher than this data represents.

Areas of Spain have been reintroducing lockdown restrictions, particularly in the Barcelona region. The weekly case count in Spain has doubled from circa 4,489 to circa 9,575 this week. That rise in the disease has been seen in 15 of the 19 regions and autonomous cities of Spain. The total number of tests performed has increased, as I said, but the proportion of those that are positive has also increased from 1·4% to 4·3% during July, with the greatest increase in the last week.

I discussed that advice with the Ministers from the other three UK regions, and the decision was taken to remove Spain from the list of exempt countries from midnight on Saturday night. I recognise that the timing of the change would have had a significant impact on travellers who arrived early on Sunday morning. However, the evidence was considered to be so strong that a delay was not feasible. The risk to the Northern Ireland population was too great to delay another day.

I will continue to make decisions based on scientific information to determine which countries may be removed or added to the exemption list and will move quickly to remove any country when the evidence supports doing so. The health and safety of the people of Northern Ireland is my main priority.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

I will remove my mask to ask the question as not doing so can cause people with hearing difficulties additional problems in picking up what is being said.

Considering the ongoing confusion around travel advice and restrictions, does the Minister agree that it is important to convene a British-Irish Council meeting to agree a consistent approach to travel into and across these islands?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

As the Chair of the Committee will be aware, there will be a North/South Ministerial Council meeting on Friday, at which that will be the main topic of discussion. So, I am sure that the incidence in Spain and other countries, and how we manage that on an all-island basis, will be up for discussion at that point.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

Will the British-Irish Council meet to consider the east-west dimension?

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Now, this is not a Committee.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

My question was not answered.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

This is not the Committee, and the Minister has given an answer.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

If any directions come from the North/South Ministerial Council in regard to the British-Irish Council, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister will take them.

Photo of Alex Easton Alex Easton DUP

What is the process when somebody comes back from Spain and lands at the airport? What happens at that stage? You have to go and isolate for two weeks, but is there some sort of process at the airports to make sure that holidaymakers and residents who are coming back know exactly what they have to do?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

There are information points at the airports. There will also be announcements made on aeroplanes as people arrive as to the steps that they should be taking. There is an international travel locator form, which is mandatory for anybody who lands in Northern Ireland from one of the red countries. That must be completed, and there is a penalty of £60 for anybody who fails to do so. So, the test, trace and protect system should work if it is necessary to follow them up and make sure that they are observing the 14 days of isolation that is required should somebody come in from a quarantine country.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Before I call Mr Pat Sheehan, I remind Members to rise in their places if they wish to ask a question.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

How is the Minister going to address the confusion about, and differences in, the travel advice? I am not just talking about North/South but also east-west, where there seem to be a lot of anomalies in the advice that is being given out.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

That is a valid point, and it is one that I raised with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, on Saturday night, because there seems to be inconsistency between the advice that is coming from the Health Departments across the four nations and the advice that is being given by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I wrote today to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office asking for clarity and for it to consider the guidance that it is giving in regard to travel from the islands specifically, because it seems to contradict what was agreed by the four Health Ministers.

I have raised the matter with the Health Minister and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and I hope to receive clarity on the specifics of it, because it is causing some confusion for people who are travelling or who still intend to travel to the islands. At this point, I encourage them not to.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party 3:15 pm, 27th July 2020

I thank the Minister for coming to answer questions on this important issue, which is causing great concern to people. I appreciate, from his advice, that the incubation period could be up to seven days, but is there a method of prioritising testing for those individuals on that seventh day? If results could come back within 48 hours, that could shave five days off the quarantine period for them, which would enable many of them to get back to work. Many of those who are off at this period are teachers, and they need to get back into school and back to work as quickly as possible.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

The Member raised with me yesterday by text message the ability of someone who is currently in Spain to book a test and take it on their return. Our testing system is not set up to do that. At this minute in time, it is set up for people who are symptomatic. We are looking at whether it should be necessary or whether there could be an advantage in that, but I would not want testing to be a reassurance or a second line for somebody who wants to book a holiday to a country that is in the red zone and then rely on testing when they come home to allow them to get back to the workplace earlier. As I said to the Member when he asked me yesterday, the issue is the incubation period of COVID-19. The initial test, when somebody lands, might be negative, but there is an incubation period of, we reckon, up to about seven days where a second test may be necessary. We are looking at that, but we need to be consistent across all nations.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Can the Minister give any clarification or information on how or if there is a joined-up Executive approach to this? For example, is the Department for the Economy working with employers? Is the Department of Finance working with holiday insurance companies? Are both or either working with the Department of Health?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I thank the Member for his question. He makes a valid point. He may not be aware that there was an Executive meeting prior to the urgent oral question, and the only item on the agenda was what supports other Departments could put in place. The Department for the Economy and the Minister for the Economy are now engaging with employers to request that there is flexible support for those who have been in Spain and now face 14 days of quarantine. The Department for the Economy will also engage with travel insurers, as the Member suggested. The Department of Finance and the Minister of Finance will engage with their counterparts in Westminster in regard to furlough to see if anybody who had been furloughed could re-engage with furlough when they return from Spain.

There are as many support mechanisms in place as possible, and, again, the Department for Communities and the Minister for Communities will see what additional support packages are within the remit of the Northern Ireland Executive. The Executive Office will look at updating information on nidirect so that anyone who is currently in Spain or intends to go to Spain can get all the information in one central location rather than having to source it elsewhere. Currently, nidirect gives information to people who may be looking to go on holiday, but we need it updated for those who are in Spain and are caught in that situation so that they have the information on what to do when they return.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

I want to return to the British-Irish Council meeting and the need for a British-Irish Council meeting. The Minister has taken a decision on Spain because the evidence suggests that we should restrict travel. There are parts of these islands where infection rates may be as high as if not higher than those in Spain. Does the Minister agree that the British-Irish Council meeting will be an opportunity for all the Administrations to share advice and to give reassurance to the public that the best advice is being used?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I thank the Member, and I realise the political point that he is trying to make in regard to engagement at the British-Irish Council. I will attend any meeting that develops positive health advice for the people of Northern Ireland. Whether it is North/South or British-Irish, I would be supportive of any meeting that provides a consistent approach and consistent guidance to the people of Northern Ireland across these islands.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

Minister, given that this is a fast-changing situation, what advice would you give to anyone who is considering overseas travel that is not essential?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I thank the Member for his question. I will read him the current advice, which is on nidirect. It states:

"You should carefully consider your holiday and travel options, in light of the continuing COVID-19 threat. A 'staycation' is one way of mitigating the risks - while also supporting the local economy. If you're holidaying abroad, you may have to self-isolate for a period of 14 days on your return home – depending on which country you have visited."

I ask people to take great cognisance of that in regards to the ever-changing situation and coronavirus in other countries and places. As we have seen with Spain, it can change at a very rapid pace. The guidance on nidirect is fully supported by the entire Northern Ireland Executive, and I encourage people from Northern Ireland to read it when planning their holiday.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

Does the Health Minister have any specific guidance for family members or people who share a household with someone who has just come back from Spain? For example, if a young person comes back from holiday and returns to his or her parent's house, what is the guidance for other people who share that household? Should the person who is returning be self-isolating in a separate part of the house? How does that work? Will specific guidance be given to family members and householders?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

The Member almost answered his question. The guidance on self-isolation and how that is managed has been there from the early days of our managing coronavirus. That information on self-isolation stands. It is about isolating in rooms that are separate, if possible, using different bathrooms and bedrooms and making sure that you are not in the kitchen at the same time. That advice and guidance is well documented and is available on nidirect and the Department of Health's website. We will reiterate it for anybody returning from Spain, so that the entire package of information is there to support them.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

Dublin Airport is a popular airport for people from Northern Ireland. What arrangements are in place for data sharing in terms of people who are travelling back from countries that are on the red list? Without that data sharing, what do you consider to be the risk of people who are travelling through Dublin Airport not self-isolating in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

The Member raises a point that, I think, I am on public record about, thanks to another leaked letter. I have raised concerns about data sharing with my counterpart in the Republic of Ireland. We have information points at all airports across these islands that indicate that the completion of the travel locator form is for your place of residence or final travel. Anybody landing in Dublin and coming to Northern Ireland must complete that travel locator form. We have information points at all the airports and places of landing. However, I have raised concerns with my counterpart in the Republic of Ireland that we do not have a process whereby the information on people completing the form is being shared openly with us. It is on the agenda for discussion at the North/South Ministerial Council meeting on Friday. It is important that we have that information to make sure that we can reinforce the 14-day self-isolation that we are requiring for people returning from countries that are on the red list.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

Minister, people have been caught up in the change, at the eleventh hour, on returning from Spain. A number of them will have gone there in good faith that they would be able to come home and return to work; for some of them, that is to work in your Department. However, the policy there is that they need to self-isolate and the time comes off their leave. Will a sympathetic approach be taken to employees who face circumstances in which they could be forced to use their holiday leave because of the decision taken?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I thank the Member for making that point. As I said in a previous answer, his party colleague the Minister for the Economy is speaking with the representative bodies of major employers to ask them to be as flexible as possible, so that people can be supported through working at home or by additional or reintroduced furlough payments, in order that they do not have to use sick leave to take the fortnight of self-isolation. I encourage my ministerial colleagues, where possible, to avoid anyone being penalised. If they can be supported by them working at home for the fortnight, they should be.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

I am glad to hear about the Executive's approach that the Minister outlined to Mr Blair. Are there any exemptions to the quarantine period, for example, for essential or key workers?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

Unfortunately, because we are looking at Spain as a country that is on the red list, the list of exemptions is minimal, if not non-existent, because of the level of prevalence of COVID-19 in that country.

We have been asked whether health workers could be exempted, but, if they were to prove to be positive on the seventh day or the tenth day or if they were to have been asymptomatic during that time, there would be a risk to the people whom they have been working with and to the patients with whom they have come into contact. There are very limited exemptions for anybody coming in from a red country, but I will get exact details for the Member, if that is helpful.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Thank you, Minister. No other Members have indicated to me that they wish to ask a question.

I remind Members that the Assembly is scheduled to sit again tomorrow.

Adjourned at 3.25 pm.