International travellers from a further 13 countries will face mandatory hotel quarantine once the legislation and arrangements for the strict new Covid-19 measure are put in place.
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has announced that 13 South and Central American countries have been added to 20 already identified as so-called ‘Schedule two’ countries that present a higher risk of the virus and its variants.
It comes amid continued claims from Opposition parties that the proposed system of mandatory quarantining in hotels does not go far enough and should be extended to passengers from all countries aside from essential workers.
Announcing the expanded list of 33 countries Mr Donnelly said: “The Government continues to advise against all non-essential international travel at this time and a range of measures is in place to reinforce this policy.
"If you travel to Ireland from any of the high-risk countries, you must complete a full 14-day quarantine period."
“This applies to all passengers from designated states, regardless of nationality and the aim of this measure is to protect the population from challenges posed by new variants of concern.”
Mr Donnelly added: “I brought legislation to the Dáil this week to bring in mandatory quarantine in a designated facility.
“Once the Bill has passed through all stages in the Oireachtas, it will be referred to the President for his consideration.
“Subject to the Bill becoming law, it is the Government’s intention to commence the operation of mandatory quarantine facilities as soon as possible.”
A national oversight group for variants of concern (VOCS) has been established to monitor and advise upon the challenges posed by new strains of the virus.
The list of schedule two countries is to be subject to review on an ongoing basis.
The countries added on Friday night were Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela.
The original 20 countries are Angola, Austria, Botswana, Brazil, Burundi, Cape Verde, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Republic of South Africa, Rwanda, Seychelles, Tanzania, United Arab Emirates, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Earlier, the chairman of the National Public Health Emergency Team's (Nphet) Covid-19 expert advisory group has said the one case of the coronavirus variant B1525, first identified in the UK and Nigeria in December, was identified here through contact tracing and was connected to travel.
Dr Cillian De Gascun, also the director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory, said the variant was slightly different from other variants because it had a mutation of concern which could be vaccine resistant.
Dr de Gascun said at this stage the variant was of interest rather than concern. Any concern was theoretical as to date it did not appear to be more transmissible, he told RTÉ radio's News at One on Friday.
The case was identified in the east of the country and it was important to monitor it, he added.
Dr de Gascun said that the case emphasised the importance of public health measures. The three cases of the so-called Brazilian variant in the country had been identified because the people involved self-isolated and adhered to the restrictions, he said.
Ireland’s levels of sequencing had, as a result of the encouragement of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, increased from one percent to between 13 per cent to 15 per cent, while it was between five percent and 10 percent elsewhere.
However, this was not just about data, it was about end to end surveillance, he said. Sequencing formed an important part of the overall Covid strategy, but it was not a silver bullet, Dr de Gascun said.
“The virus does not recognise borders,” he added.
There were challenges across the board on the planned quarantine measures, he said. “We want people to avoid all non essential travel.”
Reverse contact tracing
Earlier the head of the HSE’s Covid Test & Trace system, Niamh O’Beirne, said that there will be more investigative reverse contact tracing, which will allow local notifications for anyone who has been in a particular place, at a particular time, to present for a test.
Speaking on RTÉ radio's Today with Claire Byrne show, she said the more investigative contact tracing will go back seven days - where they were, the address and eircode, to allow pattern analysis. It will involve a "bit of investigative work" to see if others need to be tested, she explained.
Ms O’Beirne said that antigen testing could help provide an early warning, but it was not a panacea, its accuracy was only 50 per cent with those who were asymptomatic. The PCR test was the gold standard, “it is the better test,” she said.
When asked if the increased levels of positivity among young people was a cause for concern with the reopening of schools, Ms O’Beirne said there were lots of supports in place for schools. A specific group comprising 50 public health inspectors had been set up to support schools, she said.
Meanwhile, the HSE's chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry has said it has been "recalibrated" because of Covid-19.
New public health teams have been built in the community and other forms of care there have had to be introduced because of the virus, he said.
These changes have become “part of the journey we’re on,” he told Newstalk Breakfast on Friday.
Incidents that would have been considered “normal” in the past such as patients on trolleys and crowded accident and emergency departments could not happen any longer and rightly so because they were “so dangerous”, Dr Henry said.
The number of people in hospital with Covid-19 has continued to drop to 585, according to the latest figures from the HSE.
There are 140 patients with the virus in intensive care (ICU). St James's Hospital in Dublin has 88 Covid-19 cases, the highest number in the country, followed by Connolly Hospital, Blanchardstown (58) and Beaumont Hospital (54).
The HSE’s daily operations figures show there are 34 ICU beds available for adults and 5 for children.