Northern Ireland news

Stormont leaders to contact taoiseach over lack of engagement on Covid issues

Health minister Robin Swann has expressed disappointment at the failure of the Republic's health minister to meet him directly on the cross-border travel concerns
Seanín Graham

HEALTH minster Robin Swann has said he is "disappointed" that his counterpart in the Republic failed to meet him to discuss cross-border travel risks following a request more than a fortnight ago.

Mr Swann confirmed that Stephen Donnelly replied to his letter seeking a discussion but instead "encouraged officials to meet".

In the May 5 correspondence, the north's health minster said he "wished to place on record" his concern at cross-border interactions potentially "fuelling" an increase in community transmission and Covid-19 cases across the island.

Stressing both governments should be doing "all we can to "prevent non-essential cross-border travel", Mr Swann said shopping trips and socialising would only lead to the virus spreading.

During an interview yesterday, he revealed that no response had been given by Mr Donnelly in relation to the request for a direct meeting to address his concerns.

"I had asked for a meeting with my counterpart in the Republic of Ireland to discuss this, to see what we could do jointly, in regards to that, and in regards to messaging that, but unfortunately I have been unable to secure that meeting with Stephen Donnelly yet," he told the BBC's Nolan Show.

"It is disappointing. I reported it back to the executive."

Sources say that Mr Swann enjoyed a "close" working relationship with Mr Donnelly's predecessor, Simon Harris - but that "the same could not be said" about the current incumbent.

With a major cyber attack on the Republic's health service last week leading to the cancellation of thousands of procedures, the northern health minister said he accepted this was a priority for his counterpart.

However, he added that the written request for a meeting pre-dated the incident.

As indoor hospitality re-opened in Northern Ireland yesterday, concerns are mounting about an influx of visitors from the Republic - particularly in border counties - at a time when their vaccination rollout lags significantly behind the north's.

A spike in infection rates were recorded in Donegal at the beginning of this month when a surge in cases also emerged in the neighbouring Derry/Strabane areas. The Donegal rates have since dropped.

The lockdown exit is also slower south of the border, with outdoor dining in restaurants and bars resuming on June 7 while indoor re-opening set for July.

In his letter, Mr Swann spells out the risks and says that "clear messaging" around cross-border travel should be used - "backed up by enforcement if required".

"Our two jurisdictions are at different junctures, in terms of number of cases, the current trajectory of the epidemic, vaccination progress and Covid-19 cases in respective jurisdictions," he said.

He added yesterday there were signs the north/south vaccination gap is closing.

"Fingers crossed by the summer we should see the same level of vaccinations across these islands," he said.

In an interview wiht RTÉ earlier this month, Mr Donnelly said he had received the letter and that his department would consider the issue regarding restricting non-essential cross-border travel.

He added: "My own view right now is that the epidemiological situation wouldn't warrant that," he added.

"I believe the island is doing very well both north and south at the moment."

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