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Too early for decision on holidays abroad, says Arlene Foster

Foreign holidays this summer could be back on after the First Minister said it is too early to make an assessment on whether it will be safe - one day after the Health Minister ruled them out.

In the latest mixed message to come from the Northern Ireland Executive, Arlene Foster has said a decision on foreign travel in the summer months will be made after April 12.

Mrs Foster was speaking at the Executive’s weekly press conference on Thursday afternoon, alongside deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, and they were asked whether they believe foreign holidays will be possible this summer.

It came after Robin Swann was asked earlier this week if trips abroad should be ruled out and he said flatly: “I would very much say so.”

The chief medical officer, Dr Michael McBride, followed up by warning that booking a summer trip abroad would be “premature” due to rising Covid-19 cases in Europe, adding that it was “best not to plan too far ahead at this time”.

Appearing on the podium together on Thursday, the First and deputy First Ministers were asked whether they agreed with Mr Swann’s position and Mrs Foster said: “I think it’s too soon to say whether people are going to be able to go on international travel or not.

“As I have indicated, the Global Travel Taskforce is reporting on April 12, our officials are working through that with other officials from Scotland, Wales and England, so we look forward to receiving that report, so my view is it’s perhaps too soon to be booking your holidays, but it’s also too soon to be ruling them out as well because we haven’t had that report yet.”

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Ms O’Neill also said it is too early to make a definitive decision on the matter due to the uncertain nature of the virus and the possibility of new variants emerging.

“I think that we don’t know what the situation is going to be in a month’s time, two month’s time or certainly into the late summer,” she said.

“So I absolutely accept what the chief medical officer has said in terms of the prediction he has made in terms of the uncertainty, we don’t know how things are going to be shaping up across Europe, we have to factor in all these things, so I just think you can’t give people the guarantee that they wish in terms of travel at this stage.”

The comments from Mrs Foster and Ms O’Neill followed criticism from Stormont health committee member Jonathan Buckley on the matter.

The DUP MLA said: “I really don’t think that Mr Swann should have come out and said that as it seems far too early to me to be making that judgement and, as far as I am aware, it isn’t the agreed decision of the Executive.”

Brian Ambrose, the CEO at Belfast City Airport, has accused Mr Swann of causing further damage to the air travel industry which is already struggling following a year of restrictions on global travel: “Ministers and senior civil servants must carefully consider the severe economic consequences of their public comments. As an airport we would never challenge decisions made by the Health Minister in relation to the running of the health service.

“However, we would expect decisions on international air travel to emanate from the Northern Executive, rather than the Health Minister or an advisor. These personal observations have severely dented consumer confidence, at a time when our vaccine programme is being successfully rolled out and should enable responsible summer travel to certain countries.

“For many within our society, the thought of an international holiday this year may be a step too far. However, for many who have toiled and endured the last 12 months, a summer holiday, following a vaccination, is a much-needed panacea.

“Our sector has been well supported by the Northern Ireland Executive during this pandemic, and we will continue to work with Government to ensure that Northern Ireland travellers are not left in limbo regarding summer travel.”

Meawhile, Northern Ireland has recorded no Covid-19 deaths for the second day in a row. A further 183 new cases have been diagnosed and there are 108 Covid-19 inpatients, of which 14 are in intensive care.

It has also emerged that 808,241 vaccines have been administered, of which 703,334 are first doses.

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