COMMENT: Christmas Travel Ban Simply Isn’t Good Enough

This week, Gavin discusses the confusion surrounding Christmas travel, and argues that the people of Ireland deserve to know now what they will, and will not, be permitted to do this year.

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There’s no doubt but that the encouraging developments regarding a COVID vaccine this week have given many people a lift. We’re still in the proverbial tunnel that is this pandemic, but there’s light at the end of it. Sure, it’ll take time to roll out a vaccine to everyone who wants it, but Ireland is on track to secure adequate quantities of vaccines to properly protect the likes of frontline healthcare staff, our oldest citizens, those in nursing homes and those who are deemed vulnerable over the coming months. That won’t make the virus go away, but it will allow for life to return to very close to normal, and not a moment too soon.

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But another thing that has been giving people much-needed hope is the prospect of a “meaningful” Christmas. That was the carrot dangled in front of us by Taoiseach Micheál Martin when he announced Level 5 restrictions in October. “Every Christmas is important, but this year it is particularly so,” he said. “It won’t be the same Christmas that we have enjoyed in years past, but if we all pull together and follow the spirit of these new rules, it will be a very special time and will give us all some respite from the hardship of the last seven months.”

I know that I’m not going to be able to go and meet friends in the same way as before. We all know that office parties won’t be happening this year either (and some won’t miss them!). But to me (and most people), Christmas can only be meaningful if I’m with my family. I’m fortunate in that, all going to plan, I’ll have that opportunity this year, but there are undoubtedly thousands of ex-pats who were relishing the prospect of returning home to Ireland for a “meaningful” Christmas that is so, so badly-needed after the horror that was 2020.

And they can do this safely, or at least within specified regulations. This week’s opening of a private COVID testing facility at Shannon Airport and the adoption by the government of the ‘traffic light’ system of travel guidelines set out a framework that people can abide by if it gave them the chance to celebrate Christmas at home. Like the vaccine, it gives hope.

But that hope is dashed somewhat when senior politicians, most notably the Tanaiste Leo Varadkar, tell people that now is not the time to book flights home. That hope is smashed when the Chief Medical Officer is even more emphatic in telling people that the usual Christmas trip home is not ‘essential.’ Dr. Holohan, with due respect, this is essential for many people who are longing for a reprieve after a year in which they have made unparalleled sacrifices, especially in it quite possibly could be a ‘last’ Christmas with a sick, or older relative. It is more essential than the Ireland soccer team’s friendly in an under-lockdown London this week, and those players can travel in and out of the country. Many will choose not to travel, no matter what the regulations say. That makes complete sense. But in cases where families need to be re-united, people deserve consistency and clarity. Leo Varadkar and other in government say six weeks out from Christmas is “too soon” to consider traveling? They could not be more wrong on that front. They shouldn’t try to close the door on the option to travel after dangling it in front of us like a shiny bauble.

If international travel is of such concern that these journeys are dangerous to our collective health, tell us as much. Be consistent. We’ve given up so much this year, that we deserve straight talk, and not false hope.