The Taoiseach has ordered an urgent review after a charter flight brought almost 200 seasonal workers into Ireland during the coronavirus lockdown.
The flight from Sofia arrived at Dublin Airport earlier this week, transporting 189 Bulgarian workers to be deployed on fruit farms owned by Dublin company Keelings.
Leo Varadkar has ordered a review into the rules and procedures around travel into Ireland during the ongoing health emergency.
Health Minister Simon Harris and chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan also expressed concern at the incident.
We need to keep travel to a minimum and ensure that passengers are interviewed on arrival and that quarantine is observedLeo Varadkar
Mr Varadkar said: “I share the discomfort expressed by the chief medical officer about the report of a large number of people coming to Ireland earlier this week to work in the horticulture sector.
“We need to keep our airports and ports open so essential goods and essential workers can get in and out of the country and Irish citizens and residents can return home.
“However, we need to keep travel to a minimum and ensure that passengers are interviewed on arrival and that quarantine is observed.
“I have therefore asked for an urgent review of the current rules and procedures to be carried out over the weekend.
“That review will be considered by the Cabinet Committee on Covid-19 on Monday and any changes that are necessary in light of that review will be made.”
Earlier, Mr Harris voiced concern in a Twitter video, saying: “I feel deeply uneasy about this, I don’t think the idea of chartering planes at this time to bring people into our country is a good idea.
“At a time we’re asking people to socially distance, the idea that a chartered plane, on which you can’t socially distance, would be coming into our country is something which makes me feel uneasy.”
Chief medical officer Dr Holohan said companies flying migrant workers into the country was not currently consistent with public health advice.
Keelings has faced widespread criticism due to the strict public health measures in place to stop the spread of Covid-19.
Dr Holohan was asked about the incident at Friday’s coronavirus briefing by the National Public Health Emergency Team.
He said he was not comfortable with companies chartering flights to bring large numbers of workers into the country.
He said he only found out about the Keelings flight after it had arrived.
“It wouldn’t really be consistent with the public health advice that we’ve been giving,” he said.
“And I think some of that advice does have implications in relation to travel and for people who are travelling and we’ve been very clear and consistent in what that advice is.”
He said travel should be limited to Irish citizens returning home from abroad and to those engaged in keeping vital supply lines operating.
“I don’t want to be critical of any individual or any individual circumstance, I don’t know the details of the circumstances, I’m aware of in general terms what’s been reported in the media,” he added.
Several opposition TDs have criticised both Keelings and Ryanair, which operated the flight.
In an initial statement on the incident issued on Friday evening, the Irish Government said that seasonal workers were critical to the agricultural sector.
A spokesman for the Government said the Irish border remained open.
“The Government is aware that a chartered flight brought 190 people to Ireland this week for fruit picking work,” the statement said.
“The Irish border, including airports, remains open to support the supply chain for essential cargo and essential workers, as well as the repatriation of our citizens.
“Seasonal workers are critical to the agricultural sector in terms of harvesting, planting and tending functions, especially in the current season.
“The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has been working closely with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to ensure employers are aware of the supports for business to help them source labour from the domestic economy.
“A national recruitment campaign will start shortly with the aim of recruiting a large number of temporary workers for the horticulture sector from the live register within Ireland. This campaign will be timed for the fruit harvest peaking in mid-May to mid-June and the vegetable harvest from mid-June.
“Anyone arriving from outside Ireland must comply with the Department of Health guidelines with regard to Covid-19 requirements and restrict movements for 14 days.”
In a statement, a spokeswoman for Keelings said: “As a family business Keelings acknowledge the concerns of people and fully understand the reasons for these concerns.
“We also acknowledge that our communication to the public should have been both faster and more detailed during this Covid-19 crisis.
“During the main Irish fruit and vegetable season from April to October, we employ temporary horticultural workers to harvest – about 900 over the season.
“This is demanding work requiring a high level of dexterity and product knowledge.
“On Monday April 13, 189 seasonal workers flew on a charter flight from Sofia to Dublin. All had been health screened by a doctor before they travelled to Sofia airport where they were temperature checked before entry.
“Ryanair and Dublin Airport can confirm that all regulations were adhered to. They were taken straight to their housing.
“In accordance with HSE guidelines, they cannot work for 14 days after their arrival and their movements are restricted.
“We will take care of these colleagues as we take care of all of our people, permanent or temporary. They will be subject to further medical screening before they start work at Keelings.”
A spokeswoman for Ryanair said: “This was a charter flight for a private company. Ryanair complied with all regulations set out by EASA (European Union Aviation Safety Agency) and WHO (World Health Organisation) on these special flights.”