Tánaiste statement to Dáil on Covid-19
Speech04 June 2020
I welcome this opportunity to discuss my Department's role in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, including our immediate consular response to the crisis, our wider contribution to the whole-of-Government response, the impact on the passport service and our plans for the coming months.
The scale of the consular challenge caused by the Covid-19 pandemic saw an unprecedented number of Irish citizens stranded across the world. The Department quickly developed a comprehensive approach to the repatriation of citizens who wished to return home, prioritising those most vulnerable while taking account of the best interests of our citizens everywhere, including from a public health perspective. By the end of May, my Department had helped well over 6,000 citizens to return from 126 different countries, including many healthcare workers returning to assist in the Covid-19 response here at home.
From the outset, priority was given to helping those citizens who are normally resident in Ireland to return home safely on commercial flights wherever possible and, where that was not possible, on flights chartered by the EU or other partners, including the UK. In exceptional cases where these options were not available, the Department directly chartered flights to bring citizens home, notably from Peru, India and Nigeria. In arranging these flights, we worked in close co-operation with EU partners and were able to repatriate citizens from many other EU member states also. We made use for the first time ever of the EU Union Civil Protection Mechanism, UCPM, which reimburses countries required to repatriate citizens by chartering flights. The reimbursement is about 75% of the cost of the flights.
Once the gravity of the pandemic became apparent, my Department activated a dedicated Covid-19 phoneline to provide direct support and advice to Irish citizens abroad, as well as their families here at home. During the peak of the crisis, the Department handled up to 2,000 calls every day. I am glad to say the figure is now around 200 per day but it is still significant enough. Our latest information is that more than 1,000 of our citizens overseas still want to return. Some of these are located in remote regions with poor health infrastructure and in many instances severe travel restrictions remain in place. We continue to explore all solutions possible in close co-operation with our EU and international partners to assist these citizens in returning home.
My Department co-operated closely with the HSE to ensure that all Irish citizens were given appropriate advice for the protection of both their own health and public health on their return to Ireland. In mid-March, my Department issued a general advisory notice which remains in place for the public to avoid all non-essential travel overseas. The security status assigned to all countries was amended to reflect this general advice. It is worth noting for this House's knowledge that in the first four months of this year, we updated or changed our travel advice almost 1,400 times, which is an extraordinary figure. Normally, in a whole year that number would not be reached. It is a reminder of how quickly things were changing and the pace of the movement of information that we were trying to provide to people. This advice will remain under constant review as the situation evolves over the coming months. In providing this travel advice, the protection of public health has, of course, been to the fore at all times.
My Department has also contributed to the wider whole-of-Government response to the Covid-19 crisis in a number of different ways. Personnel from the Passport Office have been redeployed into other essential public service roles, such as Covid-19 contact tracing for the HSE and working with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to facilitate the processing of Covid-related benefits. We have a very large number of people who are normally involved in passport work. Passport applications virtually stopped because there was no travel, so it made a great deal of sense to get people who were used to dealing with people's queries on the phone to work with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the HSE in other areas that were under significant pressure.
Since the start of the crisis, more than 2,500 reports have been prepared by the diplomatic mission network on international responses to Covid-19. This information feeds directly into the policymaking process here and has helped shape Ireland's response, drawing from international best practice so that Ireland can learn in real time from what other countries are doing, both their successes and their mistakes.
Our missions in Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, and Berlin and at headquarters have been working closely with the IDA, the HSE, the Department of Health, and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport to secure essential equipment, including ventilators, test kits, and personal protective equipment. I want to acknowledge the excellent co-operation of the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and German authorities, and of their embassies in Dublin.
I also want to pay tribute to Michael Hurley, who was the deputy ambassador in Beijing and who tragically passed away last week. Michael made an immense contribution to Ireland's response to this pandemic, helping many Irish citizens and saving Irish lives throughout his work, working, of course, alongside Eoin O'Leary, our ambassador in Beijing.
As the scale of the impact of the pandemic on our diaspora communities became clear, the Government established a dedicated Covid-19 response fund for Irish communities abroad. This supports projects for the elderly, mental health, bereavement counselling, and innovative ways to provide services online and meet the needs of those made vulnerable by the crisis and respond to cases of hardship, in particular in the United States where many people remain undocumented and therefore are unable to access support services for Covid-19. Our networks there have done extraordinary work in cities like New York that have been under huge pressure. To date, 58 projects have been approved worldwide amounting to almost €1 million.
The Covid-19 pandemic knows no borders, and until each country has contained the virus, no country is safe in truth. At an EU level, Ireland has played an important part in shaping and delivering on a co-ordinated and ambitious EU collective response to the pandemic, and has so far allocated €86.8 million in fresh, reprogrammed, and fast-tracked financial support for the Covid-19 response globally. Ireland is promoting a co-ordinated multilateral response in partnership with the United Nations, international financial institutions, and others. We have contributed more than €17 million in direct funding to the UN's global humanitarian response plan to Covid-19, and our funding for the WHO this year has quadrupled.
In our response to Covid-19, we are keenly aware that we must consider the shared geography of the island of Ireland, and the cross-Border mobility of people through close and ongoing contact North-South and east-west. The Government is engaged in co-operation with the Northern Ireland Executive and with the UK Government with the intention of delivering an effective response to the threat of Covid-19 on behalf of all of the people of this island. I have jointly chaired, with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, a number of conference calls with the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and the health Ministers, North and South, Robin Swann and Deputy Simon Harris, to discuss the ongoing response to Covid-19 to ensure as much co-ordination as possible, North and South.
I will now address the impact of the crisis on the passport service. Once the potential impact of Covid-19 became obvious, contingency planning commenced to minimise the impact of restrictions on the delivery of services. In particular, plans were put in place to ensure that we continued to provide an emergency service for the issuance of passports in cases of serious illness or death abroad. The passport service is also assisting those whose applications are regarded as urgent. While staff have been on site carrying out this necessary work, they have also produced approximately 6,000 additional passports during the time of this pandemic. These were all adult passport renewal applications received online which required minimum staff intervention. As these applications represent approximately 20% of all applicants currently in our system, this will reduce the work carried out when the full operations resume.
The Passport Office is at an advanced stage of planning for the return to full operation. This planning is in line with the wider Government plan to reopen in phases. From next week, processing non-essential online applications will start. The passport service has a great deal of experience in dealing with peaks in demand, and we believe that we are well-placed to ensure the online service will be meeting its usual turnaround times of approximately two weeks by phase 3 in July.
I encourage all applicants for passports to apply online if they want to get that kind of service. I am very proud of the dedication and commitment of colleagues across my Department.