The Government’s continuing failure to introduce mandatory hotel quarantine for many travellers is undermining public compliance with lockdown, according to “zero-Covid” campaigners.
Quarantine legislation was brought to Cabinet last week, but a range of issues are still being worked through. Many are legal, and relate to the deprivation of people’s civil liberties, the rights of minors and asylum seekers, practical aspects of hotel quarantine and exceptions for humanitarian or other reasons.
The issue has become more urgent since three cases of the Brazil Covid-19 variant (P1) were identified in the State for the first time last Friday. All of the cases identified are directly associated with recent travel from Brazil.
The country has been recently designated as a category 2 and arrivals are required to quarantine at home for 14 days.
The P1 variant was blamed for a huge resurgence of Covid-19 in the Brazilian city of Manaus in December and January. There was some evidence that people who had been previously infected with Covid-19 in Brazil were reinfected with the P1 variant. It is still unclear if existing vaccines can protect against the variant.
It has also emerged that 2,000 people arrived from Brazil over a 28-day period in January and February despite official advice against all non-essential travel.
The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) urged Government last summer to introduce mandatory quarantine for travellers in State facilities, but it was only in January, after other European states tightened up travel rules, that the proposal was adopted.
Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said on Monday mandatory hotel quarantine would be ready in “three to four weeks” if the necessary legislation is passed.
Taiwan also confirmed three cases of the P1 variant on Friday, and immediately announced that all arrivals would undergo centralised quarantine from this week.
"This is really impairing the public health message," says Anthony Staines, professor of health systems at Dublin City University. "If you come to Ireland, you should be properly quarantined; it needs to be done right."
“I don’t understand the delay. This was signalled last April as an important part of our response to Covid. Civil servants have had oodles of time to prepare for this.”
Ban on flights
Prof Staines believes there should be a ban on flights “from everywhere” in order to stop the importation of new variants or the re-seeding of existing ones.
What we call the Brazil variant (in fact, there are two variants of concern that originated in the country) is now found in many different countries, not just Brazil, he pointed out. In addition, travellers flying directly into Ireland from Europe may be taking onward flights from Brazil.
According to the World Health Organisation, the P1 variant has been reported in 21 countries across the world, including an additional six last week.
“It drives me mad. We’re in the middle of a huge lockdown and the Irish people are undergoing enormous stress. Yet the Government is not doing its part,” Prof Staines said.
“We’re not putting enough resources into contact tracing, we’re not asking cases where they got infected and we’re not asking the right questions about school outbreaks.”
A failure to impose mandatory hotel quarantine repeatedly seeds the virus in communities and imports new variants, according to Trinity College Dublin neuroscientist Dr Clare Kelly.
“The result is that we feel our collective sacrifice is undermined. This situation can lead to reduced compliance,” she said, in a tweet.