Northern Ireland news

NI Health officials 'have no details of numbers of passengers from Covid-19 hot spots who should be self-isolating'

Passengers arriving from Alicante into Belfast International Airport last month a day after being told they would be required to quarantine for 14 days on arrival home. Picture by Alan Lewis/Photopress

HEALTH officials in Northern Ireland do not hold details of the numbers of passengers who should be self-isolating following their return from Covid-19 hot spots, the Irish News has learned.

Passengers arriving at the north's two airports are supposed to `quarantine' for 14 days if they have flown from anywhere outside the so-called green list of exempt low to medium-risk countries.

In the Republic, the Department of Justice was able to produce data detailing the number of passengers from non-green list countries and how many had been contacted to check their compliance with Covid-19 regulations.

However, in the north the Department of Justice has no knowledge of the procedure and the PSNI was unable to provide information on quarantine enforcement measures.

The Department of Health (DoH) told The Irish News, despite minister Robin Swann designated to publicly announce which countries are on the `safe' green list, it has no involvement in the tracking and verification of those in quarantine.

The department could not provide details of how many passengers from non-green list countries have entered since regulations were brought in on June 8.

And despite running Northern Ireland's `track and trace contact centre', the Public Health Agency is not involved in collecting or collating data.

A DoH spokesman said "The details contained on each PLF (passenger locator forms) are held by the Home Office (Border Force) (BF), (which) shares the details of those required to self-isolate with Public Health England (PHE)."

He said the PHE's Information Assurance Service (IAS) calls "the subject in question to check they are self-isolating as required" and if it suspects they are "not compliant", they refer the details to Border Force who alert the PSNI.

The Home Office has not been able to provide numbers.

The PHE told The Irish News it "calls a random sample of eligible UK arrivals to ask them for assurance they are self-isolating as well as providing advice on Covid-19 symptoms and what to do if they experience them".

There is a high reliance on passengers' honesty, with the IAS phoning the contact number three times over three days and sending a text message on the fourth day `if needed'

"PHE randomly samples 1,000 eligible arrivals per day into England and NI and limited details are securely passed to a contractor to make the calls," a spokesman said.

"Each person contacted is given advice to understand why they need to self-isolate, how to do so and what to do if they are experiencing symptoms."

He said there has been "a high level of compliance and the vast majority of people contacted have confirmed they will self-isolate for two weeks on arrival to the UK".

Based on the numbers of flights flying from non-green list countries, if distributed evenly by Border Force the random checks will be stopping no more than 15 or 20 passengers a day in the north.

There is a high reliance on passengers' honesty, with the IAS phoning the contact number three times over three days and sending a text message on the fourth day "if needed".

There are no `in person' spot checks by the authorities, with the Home Office and a police triage point deciding on "further action" on the basis of unanswered phone calls.

SDLP MP Claire Hanna said the executive needs a strategy to ensure it has all contact details of those entering Northern Ireland "as soon as possible".

"Keeping a handle on the infection rate requires a range of measures and regulations in all areas of life and monitoring of potential cases from overseas must form part of this.

"While the jurisdictional and common travel area issues make it more complex, more needs to be done to keep a handle on those arriving and ensure they are adhering to quarantine.

"In the first instance sampling and compliance checking should be initiated at the international airport, ideally with testing and follow up, and a mechanism agreed with the agencies monitoring arrivals in Dublin - currently those travelling onwards to the north don’t even have contact details captured.

"The executive need to get a strategy in place as soon as possible."

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