One idea on the table is expanding the role of quarantining at home.
TALKS WILL TAKE place this week in a bid to find a compromise on expanding the mandatory hotel quarantine country list to include countries in the EU and the US.
One idea on the table is expanding the role of quarantining at home, while senior sources state that vaccinations might be used to reduce periods of isolation after travel from certain countries, as is the practice being rolled out in some other countries.
However, these ideas are not ones that were floated by the Department of Health which is understood to be concerned about the unknowns around new variants, with the department wanting to act preemptively.
It was reported last week that 43 countries – including the US and France, Germany and other EU states – were recommended for inclusion on the list by public health officials, but subsequently concerns were raised about the recommendations by government figures and the Attorney General.
At present there are 33 countries from which people arriving here are required to quarantine in a hotel for almost a fortnight.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney was reported to be privately “furious” about the proposals to add the 43 countries, stating publicly last week that he did not agree with plans to add certain countries to the list.
“I don’t believe we should move ahead with adding a significant number [of countries to the list], particularly countries that have very large numbers of Irish citizens,” he said.
“Because don’t forget, this is not primarily about non-Irish people coming to Ireland on their holidays or for something else. This is primarily about Irish people coming home.”
There are now concerns in government that the row is being pitched as Health Minister Stephen Donnelly versus Coveney, with whoever is seen to compromise, likely to be portrayed as having received a “slap down”.
Two former Fine Gael ministers – Regina Doherty and Charlie Flanagan – have spoken out against the regime in recent days.
Doherty, now a senator, said there were issues with “quasi-prison” hotel quarantining in Australia and New Zealand which resulted in police forces being deployed.
Meanwhile Flanagan told the Irish Independent that he had concerns about a government minister being able to “add and subtract” a list of countries from the hotel quarantine list and said he was concerned that the government had set it up in reaction to opposition “outrage”.
While some in the coalition state that the row has some element of Fianna Fáil wanting to look tough on Covid, senior sources states the disagreement is not yet serious enough that it involves the three party leaders, as of yet.
Talks between the two departments will first take place before the stakes are ratcheted up to the higher echelons of the party leaders.
There was significant diplomatic fallout from the letter recommending that additional countries be added leaking, with one government source saying it caused “consternation” in European capitals.
Those in government have been highly critical in the manner this has played out, stating that the row was totally avoidable had the proper procedure been followed. However, the Department of Health is understood to be completely at one with the acting Chief Medical Officer, Dr Ronan Glynn, on the matter.
‘Bouncing’ the DFA
Any addition to the list of ‘category 2′ countries requires consultation with the Minister for Foreign Affairs by the Minister for Health, which did not happen before the information was leaked to the media.
It is understood the letters were sent to Coveney and the department, but not by the time the letter was leaked, with some holding the view that it was done so to “bounce” the DFA into compliance.
Senior government sources state that behind the initial argument of whether countries should be added, there are real concerns that Glynn and Donnelly issued or signed off on the recommendations before talking to the relevant authorities about whether it was at all practical.
While it is believed that the Department of Health does not believe it has a role in consulting the EU as regards diplomatic issues around mandatory quarantine, senior sources state it was well orchestrated that the Department of Foreign Affairs be caught on the back-foot with the publication of the countries.
The questions that will be teased out this week, that the minister will have to give clear answers to, is whether the country has the hotel capacity to deal with the additions on the list, what happens with stranded Irish citizens abroad, as well as larger issues like is it a breach of EU citizens’ rights as regards freedom of movement.
One of the main issues of concerns from some in government that are sceptical of expanding the programme is the exit strategy, as well as the new criteria being used to determine what countries should be added.
With Britain and other EU countries moving to open up travel in the summer months, will Ireland be seen as being closed? There are questions also being asked as to whether new variants are just going to be an inevitable now into the future, and does Ireland react by having mandatory quarantine in place indefinitely for at least a year while the rest of the world opens up with the help of vaccinations.
Some are putting forward the argument this week that vaccinated people should be exempt from mandatory quarantine, as is the case in the US, stating it would be the “logical pathway” out of mandatory quarantine.
One of the questions being asked is how Austria – an EU country – was able to be added to the list already, without any serious issue.
Senior sources state that is was the case due to the threat of the new variants, stating that since Austria was added, the expert group on travel changed the criteria to include countries could be added to areas of high incidence, rather than variants of concern. While they said it is permissible under the legislation, there needs to be a debate about what is determined as “high”.
It is understood that the Department of Health is of the view that there is not enough data on whether the vaccines are as effective on the new variants, though there is also an acknowledgement that other EU countries do not carry out the same level of genome sequencing as Ireland does (around 15% of positive cases) to determine the level of the variant that is in each country.
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This admission is playing into both sides of the argument – do you restrict travel based on what you don’t know, or do you only bring in restrictions that is clear and evidence- based.
It is understood that those on the side of placing EU and US arrivals into mandatory quarantine want to rubbish the fears that mandatory quarantine could remain here for many months, due to a sunset clause of three months being included in the legislation.
However, the law does state that such a measure could be renewed by the minister at that point, following debate.
The ramifications of introducing such a regime will be discussed in the coming days, with government sources stating that the Taoiseach is of the view that the process under the legislation will take place before any call is made.
Sources state that while the EU is talking about travel certificates and negative PCR testing opening up travel more, that will only be finalised in a few months. The expansion of the mandatory hotel quarantine for EU countries and the US, is only meant to be introduced “temporarily”, perhaps a matter of weeks, until the numbers come down abroad, they added.
Testing on day five of such arrivals is also seen as one way to shorten someone’s stay in a hotel.
With reporting by Órla Ryan