Northern Ireland news

Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill: 'Too soon to say' on foreign holidays

Belfast City Airport chief Brian Ambrose said ministers `must carefully consider the severe economic consequences of their public comments'. Picture by David Young/PA Wire

IT is "too soon to say" if people can take foreign holidays this summer, the First Minister and Deputy First Ministers have said.

Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill were speaking a day after Health Minister Robin Swann insisted that foreign holidays are "very much" out this summer as he warned of a possible further surge in cases in the region.

His words sparked anger from the travel industry, with Belfast City Airport chief Brian Ambrose saying ministers "must carefully consider the severe economic consequences of their public comments".

He said the sector "expect decisions on international air travel to emanate from the NI Executive, rather than the Health Minister or an advisor and they are waiting for the recommendations from the Global Travel Task Force report due on April 12.

Mr Ambrose branded Mr Swann's remarks "both premature and unhelpful", calling them "personal observations" which will have "severely dented consumer confidence, at a time when our vaccine programme is being successfully rolled out and should enable responsible summer travel to certain countries".

Ms Foster said the Executive will assess the task force report.

"I think it is too soon to say whether people are going to be able to go on international travel or not," she said.

"My view is that it's perhaps too soon to be booking your holidays but it's also too soon to be ruling them out as well because we haven't had that report yet."

Ms O'Neill said it is "really understandable" that people felt disappointed by the Health Minister's comments as they are "desperate for something to look forward to".

"It is just about trying to be honest with the public around so much uncertainty around what is going to happen over the next number of months.

"It's still difficult to predict whether or not there will be travel come the summer period.

"We hope to be able to give clarity when we can, unfortunately it is just too far out at this stage to give people 100 per cent guarantees because you can't do that in a pandemic."

Ms Foster and Ms O'Neill are consulting health advisors about the impact of the slower vaccine rollout in the Republic on plans to ease lockdown restrictions.

Northern Ireland has now given first doses of the vaccine to around 45 per cent of the population, compared to around 13.2 per cent in the Republic - leading to concerns over the Executive lifting restrictions before a majority of people in the Republic have been inoculated.

Ms Foster said the Chief Medical Officer has been "very clear" that mixing two groups in such a situation would "actually damage the efficacy of the vaccine".

"We need to be very clear as to what happens when most of our population is vaccinated, if it is still the case that the Republic of Ireland is further behind."

Ms O'Neill said both jurisdictions "need to work together, and we need to share our vaccines where we can, and we need to just continually work together to fight this pandemic across these islands".

"The more co-operation we can have, the more successful we'll be and the quicker we'll get to the other side of it."

Northern Ireland will adopt the UK's coronavirus red list of countries, with Brazil and South Africa currently among those banned.

There are currently no international flights landing in Northern Ireland, but it was discussed "in some detail" yesterday by the Executive.

Ms O'Neill said international travel is "a fundamental concern for us all as we seek to manage the risks that are arising from the new variants and align with the scientific and medical advice".

Ministers have agreed the introduction of hotel quarantine for those returning from red list countries for 10 days - pre booked before arrival here," she said.

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