Gardaí have started warning Irish holidaymakers they face prison and a criminal record if they continue with their international trip.
However, some travellers are choosing to ignore this advice and continue with their holiday, sources say. Gardaí are waiting for several families to return from foreign holidays before issuing court summons.
Until very recently the Garda approach has been to issue fixed-charge notices, similar to speeding fines, to people travelling to airports or ports for non-essential journeys in breach of Covid-19 restrictions. These fines were originally €100 but were later increased to €500. There are plans to raise them again to €2,000.
However, gardaí continued to encounter some travellers who were not discouraged by the fine and were willing to treat it as part of the cost of going on a foreign holiday.
In response, gardaí have started formally directing people in breach of the travel regulation to comply with the law.
Section 31(a) (7) Health Act 1947 gives gardaí the power to direct a person to comply with a penal provision. Failure to comply is a further criminal offence which can be prosecuted in the district court.
The offence is punishable by up to one month in prison and a €1,000 fine on conviction. Offenders will also have a criminal record afterwards.
Under the current approach, travellers at the airport are first being fined before being directed not to continue their journey. If they still insist on continuing their journey, they are warned they are committing a further criminal offence and may face another fine, a prison term and a criminal record.
Sources say this warning, combined with the €500 fine, is sufficient to turn most travellers around but that a small number are still continuing with their journey despite the possibility of a prison sentence on their return.
Court summonses are being prepared for a number of Irish people who have insisted on continuing their journey after being directed not to, gardaí say.
Asked why they cannot be arrested at the departure gate, a senior garda responded that arrest is for the purposes of prosecution. “It is not a form of punishment and will only be used in the most exceptional cases.”
In response to queries, a Garda spokeswoman said: “Where a person is determined to be in breach of the Penal Regulation 4(A)(1) they can be fined, currently €500 FPN, in respect of the travel to the airport without a reasonable excuse.
"Further, where a member of An Garda Síochána determines a person is in breach of this regulation, they may in accordance with section 31(a)(7) Health Act 1947 'direct a person to take such steps as the members consider necessary to comply with the provision'. Failure to comply with this direction is a further offence."
Health officials believe foreign travel accounts for a tiny portion of the current Covid-19 caseload and that the biggest risk factor comes from domestic breaches of health guidelines. However, there is increasing concern that foreign travel may speed up the spread of Covid-19 variants in Ireland, including the South African variant which has been shown to have increased resistance to some vaccines.
As of last Friday, gardaí had issued almost 5,000 fines for non-essential travel, including 132 fines for non-essential travel to ports and airports.