An island-wide travel shutout should be introduced in Ireland to stem the spread of the new Covid variant, Sinn Fein has demanded.
Stormont deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill called on Micheal Martin to pursue a joined-up travel policy with the Stormont executive to prevent travel between Great Britain.
Ms O’Neill insisted her stance was not politically motivated, and said her party also favoured a ban on all non-essential journeys within the island of Ireland, including cross-border trips.
At an emergency executive meeting on Monday night, a Sinn Fein proposal to introduce a GB travel ban was voted down by fellow executive ministers.
Ministers instead issued guidance advising against non-essential travel between Northern Ireland and both Great Britain and the Irish Republic.
People arriving in Northern Ireland have also been urged to self-isolate for 10 days.
Ms O’Neill insisted that guidance did not apply to cross-border workers.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday the Irish Government extended its restriction on travel between Great Britain and Ireland. Commercial flights will be banned until December 31 with ferry routes limited to freight and essential passengers.
Taoiseach Micheal Martin said he was working on the assumption that the more infection coronavirus variant was already in Ireland.
We are facing a very serious situation with the emergence of this new COVID variant in Britain.
SF proposed travel ban to protect citizens & health service.
I am disappointed this proposal did not receive Executive support.
This is not about politics, this about saving lives. pic.twitter.com/8SJzz1Y7E0
— Michelle O’Neill (@moneillsf) December 22, 2020
Addressing the media in Coalisland, Co Tyrone, Ms O’Neill expressed regret that ministers had not supported her party’s proposal for a GB travel ban at Monday night’s executive meeting.
“We needed to have urgent and immediate action, Sinn Fein proposed that there’d be an outright travel ban from Britain at the executive meeting last night and that didn’t enjoy the support of the executive,” she said.
“I think that’s very unfortunate, very disappointing, particularly given the threat that is now posed because of this new strain, this new virus.”
Ms O’Neill said Northern Ireland was an “outlier”, given steps to ban travel in other European countries.
“Here we are on the island of Ireland, where one part of the island is shutdown to travel and then another part is not,” she added.
“And I just think that’s not a good position for us to be in, we’re in a very dangerous position.”
Her comments came despite the European Commission urging countries to lift outright bans on UK travel.
The Department of Health #COVID19 dashboard has been updated with latest data.
439 individuals have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 24 hours. Sadly, a further 16 deaths have been reported (4 deaths outside reporting period).https://t.co/YN16dmGzhv pic.twitter.com/Oe7mZDraVB
— Department of Health (@healthdpt) December 22, 2020
A further 16 Covid-19 deaths were reported in Northern Ireland on Tuesday.
The death toll recorded by the Department of Health now stands at 1,219.
An additional 439 cases of the virus were confirmed.
Ms O’Neill called for an all-Ireland approach.
“There needs to be an all-Ireland travel ban. That’s the best way we can respond to this crisis. That should have been the approach from the outset,” she said.
“So I would encourage the Taoiseach to work with us, I would encourage the Taoiseach to try to get to the point where the whole of the island is shut down to any inbound travellers in order to allow us to try to have the best chance to fight back against this new variant, which, as we know, spreads faster than the current form, we know spreads perhaps four times faster.
“I think that the enormity of that means that we need urgent immediate action on an all-Ireland basis. This is not a political point. This is very much a practical point. This is about saving lives, this is about doing the right thing. This is about protecting the health service. This is far too serious for any kind of politicking in the middle of it.”
Ms O’Neill rejected the argument that bans were not appropriate given the likelihood of the variant already being in the island.
“That’s like saying when the taps running, let it keep running, let it overflow, let it flood the bathroom,” she said.
Asked if she would support a ban on cross-border travel, Ms O’Neill replied: “When it comes to north/south travel, my message to everybody is very, very clear – no-one should travel unless it’s essential. No one should make any non-essential journeys.
“Conor Murphy (Sinn Fein minister) actually in the executive meeting last night actually proposed that there should be a ban on any non-essential travel north/south, east/west , it should apply across the board.”
She added: “I am really fearful for this situation, because this virus is spreading four times faster than the current form and if we have that on a widespread basis our health service is going to collapse. This is not about politics. This is about saving lives. This is about responding to a global pandemic.”
Monday night’s meeting was convened at short notice after health minister Robin Swann circulated a paper responding to the emergence of the Covid-19 variant in which he recommended issuing guidance against all but essential travel rather than proceeding to an immediate ban.
It is understood the DUP, UUP and Alliance opposed the Sinn Fein proposal for an outright, while the SDLP supported it.
On Tuesday, Mr Swann explained his rationale for stopping short of recommending a ban on travel between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
He highlighted the impact on supply chains, warning that medical stocks could have been endangered.
“We have a concern about our supply chains in regards to anything that would stop the movement of ferries or aeroplanes, because we are reliant, we’re at the end of a very long supply chain when it comes to some medicines and some medical devices,” he told his Assembly scrutiny committee.
On Monday, DUP First Minister Arlene Foster also warned of serious ramifications if a travel ban was introduced.
Mrs Foster said the new strain of coronavirus has probably already arrived.
“It is a very simplistic thing to say, ‘let’s close Northern Ireland off’,” she said.
“That has ramifications and as First Minister I have to take all those into account as well.
“I have always tried to be proportionate and balanced in everything that I have done through this crisis, and I am going to continue to do that.”