Travelling during Omicron: health and travel procedures to crack down on spread

Ireland cannot be ‘completely sealed off’, says Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan

 Covid signage in Terminal 2  at Dublin Airport. Photograph:  Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

Covid signage in Terminal 2 at Dublin Airport. Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

 

Ireland cannot be “completely sealed off” and international travel will continue to be monitored in the face of surging Omicron infections, Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan said on Monday.

In the meantime, as thousands prepare to travel in and out of Ireland for Christmas, how are health and travel procedures being used to crack down on its spread?

Current travel advice relates both to Covid generally and to the new variant although HSE chief executive Paul Reid has advised people to keep an eye out for updates in what is clearly a dynamic situation.

At the moment, people in Ireland are urged not to travel to seven specific countries where Omicron has been identified as a threat – Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Since last month, anyone who has been in any of these “scheduled” countries within the previous two weeks will not be permitted into Ireland, but with a number of exceptions including Irish, UK and EU citizens, the threat of importation remains real.

“If people have travelled on a flight from [designated countries]… and in cases where a positive Covid case has been identified, then we would kick in certain enhanced contact tracing procedures,” Mr Reid said during an RTÉ interview, explaining that much the same had been done with previous variants of concern such as Delta.

“Two rows [of airline seating] from one probable case, two rows in all directions would be contact traced. If there’s a second probable case, the whole flight would be contact traced. And if we do have a confirmed Omicron case, equally the whole flight would be traced.”

In such extreme circumstances, the entire plane would be sent for PCR testing. However, and of particular concern now, is the question regarding what happens to those who find themselves on a flight where Omicron has been detected.

Asked if this would mean quarantine over Christmas, Mr Reid appeared to suggest that policy in this area had yet to be decided.

“The policy around quarantine is obviously a policy that Government will determine and when that would kick in… I’d ask people to just stay tuned in terms of that one.”

Procedures updated by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) on Friday explained that although routine contact tracing relating to air travel had ended in September, due to the emergence of Omicron it should now be carried out for “any flight arriving into Ireland with a confirmed Covid-19 case who recently travelled from or transited through a scheduled country in the 14 days prior to onset of symptoms”.

“In these circumstances, close contacts are identified as those seated two rows in all directions from the confirmed case. If there is more than one confirmed Covid-19 case identified on the flight, the entire flight should be contact traced. The identified close contacts should be told to go into home quarantine [self-isolation] for 10 days and be tested at Day 0 and Day 10.” That advice would seem to suggest that not everyone on the flight would be required to self-isolate.

Self-isolation

General close contact guidance for variants of concern on the HSE website informs people they need to self-isolate (or stay in a room on their own) and get a PCR test, even when asymptomatic. They can stop self-isolating with a negative PCR test 10 days after last contact, and when there are no symptoms.

Separately, Government advice is that any passengers returning from a scheduled country must quarantine for 14 days at the address declared on their Passenger Locator Forms.

These forms must be filled out before departure and, since December 5th, those arriving are asked for a negative antigen or PCR test, carried out at a minimum 48 and 72 hours before the flight respectively. Antigen tests cannot be self-administered. If unvaccinated, or not previously affected, only a PCR test is sufficient.

As was recently announced and due to high levels of Omicron contagion, anyone arriving from Great Britain are advised to take daily antigen tests for five consecutive days.

There is no home quarantine requirement for passengers coming from other countries although anyone arriving without the required negative pre-departure test result will have to quarantine, and take a PCR test within 36 hours.

If no PCR test is taken, the passenger must then remain in home quarantine for 10 days after arrival.