Omicron ordeal: ‘Exasperated’ by Irish system meant to keep variant at bay

Since I landed in Dublin from South Africa, glitches in system do not inspire confidence

Terminal 2 at Dublin Airport. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

Terminal 2 at Dublin Airport. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

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My first trip back to Ireland in 2½ years started to turn sour as soon as I walked through the immigration checkpoint at Dublin Airport on the morning of Friday, November 26th.

Travelling overnight from Cape Town, where I live, I was aware that a new Covid-19 variant had been discovered in South Africa, but prior to my departure there was little public concern in my adopted home or the northern hemisphere about it.

All that changed in the 18 hours and two flights it took me to get to Dublin. During that time EU member states agreed to tighten restrictions on all travel into the region from seven southern African countries, including South Africa.

The official at the counter welcomed me home before adding that I had made it “by the skin of my teeth”

And by the time my second Lufthansa flight touched down at about 10.50am, the Irish Government was on the verge of implementing these restrictions to try and control the spread of Omicron.

As I passed through customs and immigration control, I presented my travel documents, including the passenger locater form that people must fill out prior to entering the country. The official at the counter welcomed me home before adding that I had made it “by the skin of my teeth”.

Despite arriving a few hours before the Government’s fresh restrictions came into force, I read in The Irish Times later that day about what the fresh restrictions would entail and decided to comply with them anyway.

The report stated that foreign travellers from southern Africa would have to self-isolate for 10 days and undergo two mandatory PCR tests during their period of quarantine. In addition, the tests needed to produce negative results before the isolation period could end.

A good friend and his partner had agreed to put a roof over my head for the first night I was back, but now they too had to quarantine for the same period that I did.

Hospital Report

Confirmed cases in hospital Confirmed cases in ICU
1006 97

Negative result

Although I had yet to receive any official communication from the Government regarding the new restrictions, I booked a PCR test with Randox Health in Leopardstown on Saturday, November 27th, and got a negative result the following morning.

It was not until Sunday afternoon that I received my one and only official text message. It stated that, according to their records, I had travelled from a country at high risk of a Covid-19 variant of concern, so I must self-isolate for 10 days from the time I arrived in Ireland.

It also said I must “attend for a PCR test asap and day eight after arrival in Ireland”. The message added: “You will receive a text message with the date and time of your PCR test(s).”

Given that I had already been in Ireland for more than 48 hours before receiving this text, I felt relieved to have already taken a PCR test.

When I told the caller that I had not been contacted since Sunday, I was told this was not possible

Nevertheless, I resolved to take the two additional tests that were outlined in the message and waited for someone to contact me with the date, time and place that they would occur.

However, much to my surprise I got a phone call on Tuesday, November 30th, from someone at a Covid-19 test centre asking why I had not turned up for my PCR test the day before. When I told the caller that I had not been contacted since Sunday, I was told this was not possible.

I insisted it was the case but told the caller I had fortunately already taken a PCR test over the weekend and offered to send them the result as proof. This was not necessary, the caller said, who added I would be taken off their list.

I stated I wanted to do the second PCR test that was scheduled for me on day eight of my self-isolation period, as I needed a negative result to re-enter South Africa. However, I was told their PCR tests were not valid for international travel.

Second test

This scenario was repeated on day nine of my quarantine, when I got another call from a woman at a test centre who asked why I had not turned up for my second PCR test the day before.

I explained what had happened earlier in the week and told her that I had already done a second PCR test that had produced another negative result.

What sort of technical issues are undermining the HSE’s ability to contact people with the crucial information they need to comply with the PCR testing?

At this point I felt completely exasperated with the situation playing out before me. The whole reason for the forced self-isolation and mandatory PCR testing was to ensure travellers from southern Africa did not bring Omicron into Ireland.

But in my case the system deployed by the Government to ensure this outcome had some serious glitches undermining it.

Why was I only officially contacted about self-isolating more than 48 hours after entering the country? In addition, what sort of technical issues are undermining the HSE’s ability to contact people with the crucial information they need to comply with the PCR testing?

Indeed, if my experience is not an isolated one, you would have to say these new restrictions have little chance of keeping Omicron at bay.

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