Covid-19: Varadkar defends ‘differentiated approach’ to mandatory quarantine
‘Why would you put someone from the Isle of Man into hotel quarantine when there is no Covid there?’
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar speaks during a joint press conference at Government Buildings in Dublin. Photograph: Julien Behal Photography/PA Wire
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has defended the Government’s “differentiated approach” to mandatory quarantine, saying that it made no sense to put everyone who arrived into the country into quarantine in a hotel if they were from a country that had low transmission levels.
“Why would you put someone from the Isle of Man into hotel quarantine when there is no Covid there?” he said on RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland.
It did not make sense to treat South Africa the same as Iceland, he said. By the summer there could be “travel bubbles” with some countries that were safe.
The Tánaiste’s comments come a day after the Government published a new Covid-19 plan, called the Path Ahead, charting a cautious approach to exiting the lockdown which has been in place since Christmas.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin on Tuesday announced an extension of Level 5 restrictions as expected, but promised an acceleration of the vaccination programme that would see more than 80 per cent of adults receive their first dose by the end of June.
Senior Ministers on Wednesday signalled that a wider easing of Covid-19 restrictions would be possible in the summer once this vaccination target was hit.
Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath said 80 per cent vaccination “will have, I believe, a very dramatic effect on the level of hospitalisation and the mortality and that does give options to Government”.
He told Highland Radio: “I think it would be wrong of us to get too specific as to what it might mean. But clearly the big threat from the virus is it results in some people becoming very sick, ending up in hospital, ending up in critical care or passing away in hospital or in a nursing home.
“So if you can protect the most vulnerable then for the majority of the remainder of the population the situation should be very manageable.”
Mr Varadkar said “if we vaccinate everyone over 60 and... everyone under 60 with a chronic condition, that’s actually 98 per cent of the job in terms of deaths and hospitalisations.
“So we may really see the vaccines making a real difference in terms of hospitalisations and people getting sick and deaths as opposed to cases in May or June and that might put us in a position where we can make decisions that we can’t make now.”
On Tuesday night, Mr Martin said “the end is truly in sight”, and he held out hope of a cautious reopening in April and widespread vaccination by the summer, but warned that the easing of restrictions was contingent on continued suppression of the virus.
Schools will begin reopening next Monday, but not all students will be back in classrooms until the middle of April and only if case numbers continue to fall, hospital and the ICU admissions decline and the R number – the number of people a person with the virus goes on to infect – remains below one. The impact of next week’s return to schools for Leaving Cert students and younger primary school children would be assessed continuously, the Taoiseach said.
Mr Varadkar said he understood people were anxious, depressed, fatigued and that it was difficult to stay positive. But the virus was in retreat and the number of new cases was down considerably which was because of what people were doing.
When asked about providing specific dates, the Tánaiste said the “strong advice” was that it was not a good idea to set exact metrics.
“The politician in me wants exact numbers. A numbers guy like me would like to give them, but it’s more about the trends,” he said.
The four key metrics by which the lifting of restrictions would have to be measured were: if the level of hospitalisations and the numbers in ICU were half what they are now, the R number was below one, the vaccination programme continued on schedule and if there were any new variants.
The key issue would be the “trend”, if the trend were to go the wrong way then the Government would act, he said.
When asked if the reopening of schools was dependent on that trend, Mr Varadkar said if it was found that the return to school led to a spike in transmissions then they would close.
A more cautious approach was being taken this time about the return to school with the phased approach. “Schools are safe environments, but no environment is 100 per cent safe,” he said.
The new B117 variant was a factor which was why reopenings had been staggered, he said. “In the event it goes wrong we can back out of it,” he said.
Mr Varadkar said the return of the construction sector had not been possible because of public health concerns; if there had been failures in communication about this, he said the Government would have to take responsibility for that.
“Yesterday was an opportunity for a re-set. There is a very clear plan of what is and what isn’t going to happen in the next 10 weeks. There is a clear message and a clear road map,” he said.
The Tánaiste said he was confident the vaccination programme could be completed as scheduled, but he acknowledged that there were some factors outside the control of the Government.
Mr Varadkar also said that Ireland would be happy to buy extra vaccines from the UK if they were available, but that by the time the UK had a surplus Ireland would also have a surplus.
At present the UK did not have a surplus, he told Newstalk Breakfast. “I think by the time they have a surplus we will have one too. We have 18 million doses ordered. We will have enough vaccines to vaccinate the entire population twice over.”