Stormont’s Health Minister has blamed political decision makers for the ongoing failure to secure data from Irish authorities on international passengers arriving on the island.
Robin Swann said engagement and communication among officials north and south of the border was strong but “challenges” arose at political and governmental level.
Mr Swann raised concerns to members of his Assembly scrutiny committee that the authorities in Northern Ireland had still been unable to secure passenger locator form data from the Irish Government.
DUP committee member Pam Cameron described the impasse as “shameful” while Sinn Fein committee chairman Colm Gildernew stressed the need for a swift resolution.
The exchanges in the committee hearing came during discussions around the potential for new Covid-19 variants to enter Northern Ireland, in particular the Indian variant.
Mr Swann said no cases of the Indian variant had been detected in the region.
He added he was aware of three cases in the Irish Republic but he had learned of those through the media.
Stormont ministers have been trying for almost a year to secure passenger locator form data from Ireland.
Mr Swann said the issue had been flagged repeatedly with Irish authorities, and First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill had urged Prime Minister Boris Johnson to intervene.
Mr Swann said some progress had been made as Irish authorities now send a text to arriving passengers advising them they must fill in a UK version of the locator form if they are travelling onward to Northern Ireland.
However, he said Stormont needed more information from Ireland’s own data.
“It will give us more of a reassurance and more of a robust approach if we knew and had further details and data on who actually was coming into Northern Ireland as well,” he said.
“We are still concerned that we’re not getting the full data from passenger locator forms coming from the Republic of Ireland.
“Progress has been made, but there are still difficulties now in regards to ‘data-sharing processes’, I think was what the Minister of Foreign Affairs (Simon Coveney) referred to recently in a joint meeting with the Secretary of State (Brandon Lewis).”
Asked by Sinn Fein committee member Orlaith Flynn to outline what the difficulties were in cross-border engagement on health issues, including the passenger data, Mr Swann said:
“On a professional level there’s very good engagement through CMOs (chief medical officers), public health agencies, even the officials who are dealing with the data-sharing issue,” he said.
“When it comes to some of the decision making and communications at certain levels, I think that’s where the challenge starts to come in as well, because there’s discussions at a political level and decisions that have to be made in different governments as to how those are taken forward.
“But I would say, in regards to the interaction at an official level, CMO level, it’s still highly professional, still good, still strong.
“The communication, the engagements are still good. The decision making at times is the challenging bit.”
Ms Cameron said: “I am concerned, minister, I have to say, over the issue of the impasse over the passenger locator forms that it hasn’t been resolved after all this time. I think it’s quite shameful, actually, that it hasn’t been resolved.
“In terms of pandemic, I think there’s no more important time to have that proper information sharing helping in terms of looking out for these new variants coming in.”
Mr Swann’s comments were later raised in the Dail by Sinn Fein TD David Cullinane during a question session with Ireland’s Health Minister Stephen Donnelly.
“We have a Minister for Health in the North who is saying that even at this point, at an official level it’s working, but specifically said at Government level and at ministerial and decision-making level, it’s not happening.
“That’s a concern to me.”
Mr Donnelly responded: “For reasons we all understand we take North-South co-operation very seriously, and no more so on this issue because the closer we can have to an all-island approach the better.
“I will have to see Minister Swann’s comments myself. But what I can say is that there is a very good constructive ongoing relationship.
“We recently held a health sectoral meeting. We are co-operating on data-sharing, on Covid.
“It would not be normal for me to directly contact Minister Swann about the identification of variants any more than he contact me about specific variants found in Northern Ireland.
“There is very close ongoing co-operation between the chief medical officers. The more co-operation we can have, the better.”