Q&A: what’s in the quarantine legislation and why is it so complex?

Legislation is quite draconian, and will deprive people of their civil liberties for 14 days

 Gardaí are seen at a  Covid-19 checkpoint outside Terminal 2 in Dublin airport. Photograph:   Collins

Gardaí are seen at a Covid-19 checkpoint outside Terminal 2 in Dublin airport. Photograph: Collins

 

What held up the new quarantine legislation?

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly brought quarantine legislation to cabinet on Tuesday. However, rather than it being approved immediately, Ministers were given a briefing on outstanding issues by the Attorney General.

A range of issues required more work, the cabinet was told, and since then officials have been revising aspects of the legislation. Sources indicated that six Departments were involved - the Departments of Health, Transport, Justice, Foreign Affairs, Children and Public Expenditure and Reform.

Why is it so complex?

The legislation is quite draconian, and will deprive people of their civil liberties, forcing significant numbers of people arriving into the State to go into mandatory quarantine in a hotel (or a “designated facility”).

Sources close to the drafting process said the focus is on making this legally watertight - challenges are expected, no matter what happens, but if the legislation were vulnerable to an early and successful challenge it would be damaging.

Which issues were raised at Cabinet on Tuesday?

There was concern expressed that certain people arriving into Ireland seeking asylum, or who were unaccompanied minors, or who are Irish citizens returning for a funeral of a close relative, would have their rights adversely affected.

There was also a discussion at Cabinet about the circumstances in which people could leave their hotel rooms, with at least one Minister expressing concern that confining them to their rooms in all circumstances would be too draconian a measure, and would leave the Bill open to legal challenge.

The incorporeal Cabinet meeting on Wednesday evening was originally scheduled to take place on Tuesday afternoon but was delayed until Tuesday night, and then Wednesday morning before finally beginning later on Wednesday.

There were many issues to be addressed: for example, the question of dependent children travelling with an adult. What, for example, would happen if a single parent travelling with their children were to test positive but the children were to test negative?

This would likely mean the adult should be transferred to a Covid positive facility - the creation of such facilities, or splitting hotels into Covid positive and negative units, is under discussion. Similar issues apply to unaccompanied children arriving into the State. On Wednesday, the cabinet agreed that Tusla will become involved with unaccompanied children, while sources said that parents and children will not be separated.

The issue of exemptions, for example, for compassionate reasons, also had to be addressed. Cabinet agreed that there will be, in effect, an appeals procedure for those travelling for what the legislation terms “humanitarian reasons”, which will be operated by the Department of Foreign Affairs. The reasons someone can leave their hotel are extremely limited - effectively, for emergency medical treatment, for a test, or for transfer to another facility.

It is not clear at this juncture how exercise, fresh air, and things like smoking will be dealt with.

What else do we know about the new regime?

We know the onus to pay will fall on people themselves, and while there is no figure prescribed in the legislation, it is thought the likely sum will be in and around €2000 per adult. People will have to book and pay for their quarantine before arrival, and fill out the passenger locator form as well. We also know that gardaí will not be involved in policing the centres themselves, with private security guards working on site. However, they will not have any real powers, so in the event of someone leaving a facility, or breaking the rules, gardaí will have to be called to enforce them.

Cabinet was told yesterday that people will receive a “letter of completion” on finishing their quarantine period as proof it had been completed.

Several new offences will be created by the act, all of which will be punishable by a fine of €4,000 and/or a month in prison. These include leaving the mandatory quarantine hotel, endangering the health or safety of another person, or refusing a test.

There will also be a sunset clause, sources said, which may assuage some concerns held by Civil Liberties groups. The legislation will automatically expire after three months unless renewed by the Oireachtas. The bill also provides for individuals to leave the hotel after 10 days rather than 14, if they have a negative Covid test taken on that day.

Who will be affected?

At the moment, mandatory hotel quarantine will impact arrivals from so-called “schedule 2” countries, which have detected significant numbers of coronavirus variants of concern, which may be more transmissible, cause more severe disease, or prove resistant to available vaccines. These include Brazil, the UAE, South Africa, and, closer to home Austria. In total, there are 18 countries on the list, including many African states. Mandatory hotel quarantine also applies to those arriving without a negative PCR test result.

What won’t the legislation do?

A great deal, in fact. While the legislation will set the legal framework for the new regime, sources cautioned that the nuts and bolts of how it will operate still have to be, well, bolted down. The Government hopes to figure a lot of details about how the regime will operate at the same time as the legislation is working its way through the Oireachtas (it’s currently hoped that it can be passed early next month).

So, things like which hotels will be used, how people will be transported to them, the administration systems used to book quarantine places, all remain to be figured out. For example, whether people are ferried individually to hotels, or bussed collectively, which sources cautioned could be an infection risk.

There is likely to be an option for assessing the health and fitness of those arriving, including their mental health, if needed. The State will also have to establish how to deal with those arriving without the resources to book or pay for a room, with it thought likely that some sort of retrospective billing could be enacted.

The number of hotel rooms needed will also have to be established, which will be dictated by the flows of passengers into the State. Sources speculated that up to 1,000 rooms may be needed, and rapid tendering will be required for a contract to supply them, The Government is thought to have a preference for a “on stop shop”, with a single provider for hotel rooms and transport, if possible.