Northern Ireland news

Republic resistant to border closures over Covid-19

Taoiseach Micheal Martin receiving his AstraZeneca jab administered by Brenda Dillon, assistant director of nursing at Health Service Executive vaccination centre in Cork City Hall. Picture by Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

THE Republic is resistant to restrictions on cross-border travel, with ministers insisting Covid-19 is "a regional issue".

From Monday, a lockdown restriction preventing non-essential travel between counties will lift in the south, with Health Minister Stephen Donnelly suggesting this included those wishing to travel to and from Northern Ireland.

"We have an open border, a very open border on the island," Mr Donnelly told RTÉ Radio One.

"I don't want to see that change, the Irish government does not want to see that change."

Last week his Stormont counterpart Robin Swann wrote to him asking for a halt to non-essential cross-border travel, "by enforcement if required".

The letter was written after recent surges in infection numbers in Donegal and across the border in the Derry City and Strabane council area.

Yesterday no further coronavirus-related deaths were reported in Northern Ireland, with a further 98 people testing positive in the 24-hour reporting period.

The Republic's Health Protection Surveillance Centre said it had been notified of two Covid-19-related death, with 514 more cases in its reporting period.

Mr Donnelly said he does not believe the situation in border counties currently warrants border closure, adding spikes in Donegal were largely confined to two specific electoral areas with infection rates now on a downward trajectory again.

"I believe that the island is doing very well, both north and south, at the moment and actually Donegal is doing quite well."

He was speaking ahead of a formal response to Mr Swann which is still being formulated by officials.

"I'll discuss it directly with minister Swann," he said.

"My own view right now is that the epidemiological situation wouldn't warrant that, we are opening up to inter-county travel, we are not changing that tomorrow certainly."

Mr Swann's letter had warned of a "fresh increase of community transmission of Covid-19" and asked for the two jurisdictions to work together to prevent non-essential cross-border travel.

It pointed out the regions "are at different junctures, in terms of number of cases, the current trajectory of the epidemic, vaccination progress and Covid-19 restrictions".

However, the Republic's Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue backed his colleague saying Covid-19 is "not a border issue, it's a regional issue".

The Republic will also see some of the limitations on indoor and outdoor meetings ease today, with many museums, galleries and libraries able to reopen and the number of people allowed to attend religious services, including weddings and funerals, increasing to 50.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin received his first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine at City Hall in Cork yesterday.

He confirmed the Republic will join the EU's digital green passport system, opening up the prospect of foreign travel by the end of the summer.

Mr Martin said there is a working timeframe of between June and the end of July or the beginning of August for the scheme which will operate between member states.

It would allow travel once people have been vaccinated or recovered from Covid-19 and can produce the results of a PCR test to confirm they are free of the virus.

"This has been a balancing act so far. Let's not forget we are still at 400+ cases a day and that is something we will always keep an eye on," he said.

Mr Martin said he thought people had done extremely well in responding to various guidelines over the last number of months and the results were that the country was emerging from the pandemic.

"We're set to have a good summer if we can keep this progress going and the vaccination is certainly helping in bring down severe illness and bringing down death and hospitalisation, so keep with it and we're making progress," he added.

The vaccination programme continues to gather pace, and on Friday the Republic achieved a record for the number of jabs administered in one day - 52,000.

Mr Martin said he expected vaccination to move ahead quickly, with between 220,000 and 240,000 people to be vaccinated this week, and 250,000 to 270,000 doses to be administered next week.

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