Covid-19: Restrictions on travelling abroad may last several years, expert warns

Dr Sam McConkey says calls for better enforcement of 14-day travel quarantine

Restrictions on foreign travel to combat the coronavirus could be necessary for several years, a leading expert on international health has warned.

Dr Sam McConkey, associate professor and head of the department of international health and tropical medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI), called for greater "teeth" to force people arriving into the State to quarantine for 14 days. Hotels near airports could be used to "forcibly contain" people if mandatory quarantining was introduced, he said.

Speaking on RTÉ radio on Sunday he warned of a "public health" disaster in the United States adding people arriving from there should be among those compelled to self-isolate for a fortnight.

People arriving from Britain and Portugal should also be made quarantine, while "green" countries from where people could arrive without quarantining could include Greece, Norway, Finland, Denmark, New Zealand and China.


He was speaking as Taoiseach Micheál Martin advised British holidaymakers not to come here at present.

Speaking on the BBC Andrew Marr Show, Mr Martin said Ireland was taking a "cautious approach", emphasising that all visitors would have to quarantine for two weeks if they came to the Republic.

Dr McConkey said hoped a “green list” of countries would be published by Government on July 20th. If people wanted take holidays in these countries they should be allowed, he added.

Asked how long such a list should be kept, he said: “We are looking at a multi-year plan here… Nobody knows, but we should be planning for three, seven, 10 years of this.”

Students arriving at the RCSI later this year, he said, "will be arriving two weeks early and then self-isolating before term starts.

“I feel we should be keeping our borders open, as we have done, but we should be absolutely insisting everyone stays 14 days in self isolation and we need greater monitoring that, enforcing that, dating that and quarantining that.

“We need some teeth on that, on incoming travellers and control on what they do. We need to measure and see what proportion of people coming in do actually follow the rules, and if they’re not then we need consequences to it.”

There could be “a hotel near Dublin airport and you stay there for 14 days …You’re physically contained, you’re forcibly contained within that facility” after arriving from a “red” country.

“Unfortunately that includes countries like the USA. [The situation in] New York is improving but 40 other states in the US have massively increasing numbers. I think we are going to see 30 or 40 New Yorks in the next month or two,” Dr McConkey told the Brendan O’Connor Show

"What happened in New York that we all saw, with a digger digging a mass grave on Hart Island with coffins going in and nobody there to grieve them – that will be case in Houston and Florida, and Arizona, and 20 or 30 other cities across the US.

“In the worst case scenario you’re looking at about half the people getting it and then between one and five per cent of those dying…That’s clearly a public health disaster.”

The director of the national virus reference laboratory Dr Cillian de Gascun said at the weekend the introduction of a mandatory quarantine would be a Government decision but "we would prefer not to make things mandatory if we can".

He said: “We are also telling people from overseas, in essence, that while we want them to visit the country at some point in time we don’t want that time to be now. But if they do choose to come at this point in time then they are required to restrict their movements for 14 days.”

He added testing at airports was not an effective measure as it generated a lot of false positives that were very resource intensive.

Ahead of the planned reopening of all pubs on July 20th, Dr McConkey said scenes of younger people socialising without social distancing were worrying. However, he said young people should not be maligned by those seeking to address the virus among the cohort.

“Many young people feel very angry in Ireland as we know, because of the lack of housing, lack of education, lack of jobs.

“My view is we need to see our public policy in the round for young people, so that there are two-room, unfurnished apartments in Dublin for €500 a month; so that we can say, ‘That will be available’ and young people can have reasonable housing for a reasonable price.

“Young people are very, very angry and I think legitimately so because of the challenges they face …We need to look at the overall offering that we are providing to young people in Ireland rather than just seeing this Covid-19 in isolation.”

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times