"It is like a fancy version of prison" was how one insider with knowledge of New Zealand's Covid-19 mandatory hotel quarantine described the model that Ireland will closely replicate.
Other countries operate strict quarantine that keeps people in the same room for a fortnight but New Zealand’s system – where it has been in operation for more than a year – is slightly more liberal.
The country permits outside exercise in supervised booked time slots and designated areas, while outside food deliveries from shops and elsewhere are allowed but the delivery and consumption of alcohol in rooms is limited.
“We are not going to leave people in their rooms for 14 days without letting people get out,” said one source familiar with the planned Irish mandatory hotel quarantine.
Last weekend President Michael D Higgins signed the legislation into law that will allow the system to be set up, but contracts had not been signed with an operator as of Friday morning.
Defending the time it is taking to begin, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said: "We are talking about depriving people of their civil liberties, people who have done nothing wrong. It has to be done in the right way."
The Government is engaging on the details of how the scheme will work with a single hotel operator, believed to be Tifco, the second-largest hotel operator in the State.
Neither the company nor the Department of Health would confirm this but the hotel operator would be a good fit given that it runs Crowne Plaza, Travelodge and Holiday Inn Express hotels at Dublin Airport, through which most visitors heading into quarantine will pass, and Cork Airport.
Once introduced, the system – to prevent the spread of more transmissible and potentially more dangerous coronavirus variants – will be one of the most stringent in Europe. Norway, the United Kingdom, Cyprus, Hungary and Greece all operate quarantine facilities.
Unusually, Ireland will be one of the few countries to have their quarantine managed by the Department of Health because quarantine arrangements are underpinned by public health legislation. In other countries, it is managed by justice, immigration or business ministries.
The quarantine system’s smaller, operational and more technical issues pose the greatest risk to failures and a spread of the virus: issues such as air pressure in corridors and rooms; the time people must wait before opening a door to collect deliveries; and the protocols to be followed in lifts and common areas.
Mingling between security guards and hotel guests was blamed for a surge in cases in Australia last year.
The Defence Forces will play an oversight role to avoid these mistakes, with about 100 staff deployed on a 24-7 basis, or about 30-40 working at any one time. The hotel operator and private security will run the system.
Number of ‘guests’
The big unknown is how many “guests” there will be. Arrival numbers will likely drop because of the €2,000 cost it will bring and the fines, starting at €4,000 or a month’s imprisonment, for failing to obey rules.
New Zealand operated 32 facilities with 4,000 staff and 6,200 rooms at a cost of about €150 million to the state, coping with 63,000 people over six months, but this includes visitors from all countries.
Limiting the Irish system to 33 high-risk countries or anyone without a negative Covid-19 test means that only a fraction of this infrastructure will be required.
The higher cost might be the toll on guests and the difficult public relations around hard cases of people trying to get into the State to see a sick relative or some other emergency. A further cost could come if there is a legal challenge on the constitutionality of the quarantine legislation.
“Hotel quarantine is difficult to ensure, particularly for vulnerable people,” said an Australian government report of its hotel quarantine system last October.
“It is an expensive resource and requires a highly specialised workforce to support the system, including clinical, welfare and security services in order to mitigate risk and discharge duty of care obligations. Infection prevention and control processes need to be tightly managed.”