Stormont ministers have called on the Irish Government to put an end to a long-running impasse over sharing data on passengers arriving on the island.
First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill both expressed frustration that repeated attempts to access the information from the authorities south of the border have ended in failure.
Their comments came after the Health Minister blamed political decision-makers for the ongoing problems securing the data from Ireland’s passenger locator forms.
Robin Swann said engagement and communication among officials north and south of the border was strong but “challenges” arose at political and governmental level.
During a hearing of the Assembly’s health committee, Mr Swann said no cases of the Indian variant had been detected in Northern Ireland.
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 Mrs Foster and Ms 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.”
Later on Thursday, Mrs Foster said the reason now cited by the authorities in Ireland was “IT difficulties”.
“But there have been many reasons given along the way and we just want to see the political will to get it sorted,” she added.
“I was certainly alarmed to hear from the Health Minister today that he learned about the Indian variants being in the Republic of Ireland through the press, he didn’t hear about it from his counterpart from the Republic of Ireland, so there should be sharing of that sort of information and it’s something that we very much need to see sorted out in the near future.
“It’s long past the time when we should have sorted out the passenger locator form that’s for sure.”
Ms O’Neill added: “It has been running on for far too long, for many, many months there’s been an attempt to try and get a resolution.
“There’s been some improvements but nowhere near where it needs to be. So I do hope that there’s a resolution sooner rather than later.
“And I’m aware that the chief medical officers across the island meet on a Friday every week, so all information should be shared at that conversation and then that should be relayed to us as an executive because the more we are aware of what’s happening across the island then the more we can respond to the pandemic across the island.”
Mr Swann’s comments were raised in the Dail by Sinn Fein TD David Cullinane during a question session with Ireland’s Health Minister Stephen Donnelly.
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.”