Q&A: What’s the problem with extending the country quarantine list?

Tensions in Government plague future of week-old mandatory hotel quarantine system

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly  is still pushing for the mandatory hotel quarantine list to cover more countries.  Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly is still pushing for the mandatory hotel quarantine list to cover more countries. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

The mandatory hotel quarantine system has been in operation for more than a week but continues to cause tensions in Government. What is going on?

The Department of Foreign Affairs and others reacted angrily when an expert travel advisory group recommended that 43 countries, including the US, France, Germany and 15 other EU countries, be added to 33 countries already on the mandatory hotel quarantine list.

The leaking of the list drafted by public health officials, prior to consultations between Ministers and departments, led to a “frosty” meeting between Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney.

Fault lines were drawn between public health concerns and the need to take sweeping measures to keep Covid-19 variants out of the country – as pushed by Donnelly – and the political, diplomatic, legal, business and operational issues – as pushed by Coveney and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar – around imposing the 12-day quarantine on visitors from major EU countries and the US.

A short-term compromise was reached with 26 non-EU countries and states being added, but Donnelly is still pushing for it to cover more countries.

What is at issue?

The aim of the quarantine system is to protect against Covid-19 variants as the country seeks to prevent a fourth wave of the disease and allow some easing of public health restrictions while vaccines are rolled out.

Coveney and others have questioned Donnelly and his officials about whether the means are legal, proportionate and practicable given the numbers of travellers, including Irish people, involved.

What could the legal problems be?

Attorney General Paul Gallagher raised concerns that the correct process under the quarantine legislation had not been followed. Given the freedom of movement rules within the EU, he also asked whether the State could force people arriving from EU countries to quarantine, but it was pointed out that Austria, an EU country, was already on the list and no issue was raised.

He also raised concerns about whether it would be legal to force EU and Irish citizens to pay for quarantine under freedom of movement rules. Health officials have argued that Irish people could bring back variants from visits overseas too and the legislation clearly covers them.

How could the measures be disproportionate?

Department of Foreign Affairs officials have questioned whether the proposed list goes too far when the aim was to stop variants of concern, but health officials said there are now heightened risks in EU states, including from a variant in France that appears undetectable by the PCR test.

What are the practical problems?

The contract with hotel operator Tifco offers 650 rooms with a capacity to increase this to 2,500 rooms. But Coveney and Varadkar have raised concerns about the massive influx of travellers who would be subject to quarantine if EU countries and the US were added to the list.

How could these issues be overcome?

Extra hotel rooms could be sought under a new contract. A more radical proposal could involve applying a cap on arrivals, as Australia has imposed, though this is seen as a last resort given how politically unrealistic it would be to sell to a country with a large diaspora.

So how will matters be resolved?

This is hard to say given the divisions and tensions in Government. At the heart of this dispute is the fact that the quarantine system was set up without being fully thought through and with the Department of Health unusually being charged with its operation.

One source said some in Government were never really enthusiastic about the quarantine system, seeing it as an act of populist appeasement. Health officials, on the other hand, see it as a key public health measure to stop variants entering the State that could undermine the vaccination programme.