PASSENGERS on a US military flight were allowed to enter Ireland at Shannon Airport despite not having been tested for Covid, the Dáil has heard.
In response to the breach gardai instructed the passengers to isolate in a Limerick hotel, which they did – not without leaving their quarantine to obtain food however.
Speaking in the Dáil, following a question from Social Democrats TD Cian O’Callaghan, Minister Simon Coveney said, “The landing in question was by a US military aircraft, with five crew and 48 passengers on board.
“It had sought and received prior diplomatic clearance to land subject to our routine stipulations, including that it did not carry arms or ammunition. The US authorities have confirmed that this condition was met.”
The Minister added, “As regards public health measures, Statutory Instrument 11/2021 was the applicable regulation on that date, which stipulated that all passengers should present negative PCR tests on arrival and complete a passenger location form.
“Due to an error on the US side, the passengers on the flight did not present evidence of negative PCR tests nor complete passenger location forms.”
Minister Coveney said that once the Department was informed of this breach of regulations by An Garda Siochána, the issue was raised with the US authorities, both through the US Embassy in Dublin and through the Irish Embassy in Washington.
He said that the US authorities have undertaken a review of the circumstances which led to this breach.
They have also confirmed that the passengers concerned were operating in a “clean bubble”, were tested repeatedly during the period they were deployed in the location where the flight originated and, following instructions by An Garda Síochána, self isolated in a hotel in Limerick overnight.
The troops only left once to purchase food, while masked, before returning to Shannon airport the following day to travel onward to their destination.
Despite the precautions taken, he acknowledged that the breach was not a minor issue.
“Nonetheless, any non-compliance is a serious matter and I made this clear in a discussion with the Chargé d’Affaires of the US Embassy in Dublin on February 4.
“Our Ambassador in Washington has also made this clear in his contacts with senior officials in Washington. We have emphasised to the US authorities that all landings must fully abide by the conditions put in place by the Irish authorities, including public health conditions.
“The US authorities have assured me that this is understood and will not happen again,” said the minister.
“It is clear that the requirements of the Statutory Instrument, which came into effect on January 9, were inadequately communicated by the relevant US authorities across the entire US Government system.
“My Department and our Embassy in Washington have received apologies, both orally and in writing, from the relevant US authorities, including the US military authorities.
“The US side has recommitted to full compliance in respect of future landings.”
Peace group Shannonwatch has claimed that on January 25, a total of 226 US passengers were allowed to disembark at Shannon and stay in Limerick. It has also claimed that on February 8, after Mr Coveney had raised the matter with the American side, a US Air Force aircraft spent 17 hours at Shannon, with crew members and passengers spending the night at a local hotel.
“We don’t know the full extent of US military breaches of Covid-19 regulations at Shannon,” said Shannonwatch spokesperson Edward Horgan. “But we do know that we cannot trust assurances from the US Government. Therefore, the only safe course of action is to withdraw permission for US military and military contracted flights to land and refuel at Shannon Airport.
“Such permission should never have been given in the first instance by any Irish Government, given our policy of neutrality. But now that the US military is presenting a clear risk to public health, there is no option but to end it.”
Shannonwatch has also called on Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan to explain if the rule that all foreign arrivals must have a valid PCR test is waived for US troops at Shannon Airport.
“It appears that no tests were required for 226 troops on an Omni Air international aircraft that arrived at Shannon, took off and then returned. The Minister has confirmed that these troops went to local hotels and were accommodated overnight. We call on him to clarify if these troops were classified as arrivals from abroad, and if so, why they were allowed to disembark, pass through the airport and spend the night at several different hotels.” said Mr Horgan.