Mandatory quarantine hotels concerns: ‘There’s nothing to stop someone from opening their door and walking out’

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Earlier this week, three women absconded from the Crowne Plaza near Dublin Airport.

ON TUESDAY AFTERNOON, The Journal received a tip-off that three women had absconded from the mandatory quarantine hotel (MQH) at the Crowne Plaza near Dublin Airport.

The difficulty in getting confirmation on the incident highlighted how the the new system – which has an aim of ensuring Covid-19 isn’t brought into the country from certain locations – is a flashpoint for issues surrounding the system.

It was understood that the absconded women had headed towards the Galway area but had been turned back after talking to gardaí. Usually, in cases such as these, journalists seek out a comment from the relevant agencies – in this case, gardaí as well as the Department of Health.

We received a response from the Garda Press Office informing us that the Department of Health was the lead on the MHQ project and that gardaí effectively had no official role in relation to security on these sites. Gardaí do become involved, however, if someone leaves the hotel. 

The Department of Health, meanwhile, said: “We don’t comment on individual cases”.

The incident came amid reports of internal Cabinet wrangling about mandatory hotel quarantine. Critics of the system from within the Government have previously spoken of their concerns over the Department of Health running the hotels “in a world full of virus and variants of concern”.

There were also fears within some circles that it was not going to be a “silver bullet” due to complications in relation to Northern Ireland, as people can still fly into the north and drive over the border. 

Policing

Concerns were also raised by gardaí about how it would operate. One garda spoke to us under the condition of anonymity about his concerns around policing these hotels.

The officer, who holds a middle-management position within the force, described how rank-and-file members were coming into direct contact with potentially infected passengers at these hotels, despite not being vaccinated.

Both private security, as well as Defence Force members stationed at the hotels, are vaccinated. Gardaí have been told that they can receive surplus vaccines if offered by the HSE, but otherwise have to wait until their age group’s turn to receive a jab.

At a briefing on the mandatory quarantine hotels system, reporters were told that the Defence Forces personnel do not play a role in security matters at the hotel, but are there to support various agencies of Government; ensure the system runs smoothly between public and private operators at work; and to ensure the “passenger pathway” is safe and secure.

There are small teams from the Defence Forces placed at all mandatory hotel locations, as well as airports and ports. The members are not armed.

Security

The garda source emphasised that security, as well as members of the Defence Forces, have no legal power of detention, meaning they can not legally stop someone from getting into a car and leaving the hotel.

“Right now, there’s nothing to stop someone in these hotels from opening their door and walking out the door,” he claimed. “Private security and the men and women of the Defence Forces do not have legal power of detention. But the moment someone walks out the door of the hotel, an offence has been committed – that’s because it’s against the law now not to quarantine when coming from certain countries.”

Another member said gardaí have no problem with policing and locating people who may have committed an offence, but he is concerned about safety.

“The staff and the Defence Forces are vaccinated at that hotel but the gardaí who have to go chase them are not and these are the people who will have to be up close and personal with them,” the second garda explained.

“All they can do is take note of the person’s registration of the car and pass on their details to gardaí,” our source added.

The Journal understands that this was what happened in Tuesday’s absconding case. Gardaí were informed of the registration plate of the passengers in question and were able to track them down.

While there have been beaches in the system, it is understood there are procedures around what to do when such cases happen:

  • The state liaison officer at the hotel will tell the person who is intent on leaving the hotel that they are about to break the law.
  • If the person steps outside the facility, the liaison officer informs the gardaí, and the matter becomes a garda operational matter, as someone has breached the health regulations set down in law.

Once that person is found, it is up to the gardaí to determine the next steps, in terms of charging them with an offence. While a file could be made to the DPP and dealt with by the courts, officials said that it would be the intention that the persons are returned to the hotel to complete their mandated quarantine.

Yesterday afternoon, we asked An Garda Síochána what procedures are in place to police those who abscond, if it has a permanent presence in the hotels, and how its relationship with other government departments is currently.

We received this statement:

Regulations under The Health (Amendment) Act 2021 are a matter for the Department of Health. As the Department of Health are the lead agency in relation to the management of mandatory quarantining, An Garda Síochána will not be commenting further at this time.

Friction

While the lead on the initiative is the Department of Health, a number of other departments were consulted before the legislation was brought in to enforce these quarantine hotels.

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They included the Departments of Foreign Affairs, Travel, Children and Justice.

A Government source told this publication that interdepartmental friction is still present, with the Department of Health confused as to why it was put in charge of the system in the first place.

Many within Leinster House had argued that the Department of Justice would have been much better suited to operate the quarantine hotel system.

However, it was eventually decided it should be added to Health’s already busy portfolio, much to the annoyance of some figures in the department. 

In a statement, the Department of Health said anyone who leaves the hotel will be liable to a €2k fine as well as up to one month in prison. 

“An Garda Síochána will investigate any suspected offences and enforce these laws,” the statement said. 

Regarding interdepartmental relationships, the department said there is regular contact between departments but that Health is the lead. 

“Tifco Hotel Group, the State Liaison Official and An Garda Siochana are in regular contact about operational matters relating to mandatory hotel quarantine.

“Mandatory hotel quarantine is an all of Government policy. The Department of Health is the lead department on the policy.

“From a communications perspective, there are regular and constructive virtual meetings between officials from the Department of Health, the Defence Forces, the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Defence, the Department of Transport and the Department of the Taoiseach. These began in advance of the system becoming operational and continue.”

“There is also regular contact between the Department of Health and other associated agencies such as An Garda Siochana and the HSE where necessary, on relevant matters such as enforcement or the testing regimes in place.”

Added to the greater discussion, the legislation surrounding the hotels has a three-month “sunset clause” which means it will have to be extended in around eight weeks’ time if the system is to continue. 

– Additional reporting Christina Finn

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