The Government was last night scrambling to reorganise its response to the Covid-19 pandemic after both the vaccination and quarantine programmes suffered major setbacks yesterday.
Following advice from its vaccination experts, the Government accepted restrictions on the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, only to be told later that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine had encountered similar difficulties in the US and its European rollout was being paused.
The double blow has thrown the planned vaccination programme into doubt, and is likely to mean significantly fewer vaccines administered this month at least. Ministers are awaiting word from the HSE about the exact consequences for the programme today, but there is extreme concern in Government about the unfolding delays.
Government sources said one option would be to space out the doses between vaccines still being administered. A source said that in common with all issues on vaccination, it would be considered by the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC), but the idea could prove attractive to both Government and the HSE.
Health sources said that mixing of different doses would be considered, as would the rapid rollout of AstraZeneca to the 60-69-year age group in an effort to keep momentum in the programme.
Meetings were ongoing on Tuesday night between the vaccine taskforce, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly and HSE officials to consider options for reorganising the vaccine programme. The head of the taskforce, Prof Brian Mac Craith, is to meet with the Taoiseach this morning in advance of Cabinet.
After the vaccine setbacks, Mr Donnelly announced last night that the State’s mandatory hotel quarantine system would not accept any new bookings until Monday, because of fears the system is reaching capacity.
Passengers arriving without pre-bookings were adding further pressure at a time when 16 countries, including France and the US, are due to be added to the list tomorrow.
Senior Government sources have said that a four-day pause would effectively result in a growing queue of people from high-risk areas waiting to get into the country.
There are also concerns that people will try to get around the pause by flying to Belfast or London first, before then travelling onwards into Ireland.
Mr Donnelly said the bookings were being paused on a “precautionary basis.”
He said that airlines will be contacted and asked not to let passengers board from high-risk countries who don’t have a booking on the system.
Bans on arrivals
Extra hotel beds will be added from next Monday, increasing capacity from 650 rooms up to about 960. The following Monday this is expected to rise to 1,300, but there are ongoing concerns in Government that if demand doesn’t drop precipitously – of the order of 80 per cent – de facto bans on arrivals will be needed again.
It is understood that Cabinet was told last week there were about 12 “walk-ins” per day, but more than that number came over the weekend. Some 10 per cent of rooms must also be held back for seclusion of Covid-positive patients at any time, further limiting overall capacity. Mr Donnelly said a small number of airlines appeared to not be checking bookings in the system for passengers getting on board flights.
A spokesman for Aer Lingus confirmed that if would-be passengers to Ireland arrived at airports in category 2 countries without proof of a booking in a quarantine hotel, they would not be allowed to board. Ryanair did not respond to questions last night.
In a statement, the Department of Transport said it had “reminded carriers to be vigilant” on passengers boarding without a booking, but it pointed to practical difficulties in policing the system. It said carriers have “limited capacity” to check travel histories of people, unless they were on direct flight from those locations.