Travel restrictions imposed across Europe as Omicron becomes Covid-19 variant ‘of concern’

Pfizer indicates it can produce a vaccine against the variant in about 100 days

Dr Mike Ryan has called for calm on the Omicron variant saying, "it's not the end of the world, the sky is not falling in." Video: WHO

 

Travel restrictions have been reintroduced in a push to contain a new strain of Covid as the World Health Organisation yesterday designated the “Omicron” variant as being of concern.

The Republic last night followed the EU in agreeing to implement an “emergency brake” on arrivals from seven southern African countries, as Belgium confirmed the bloc’s first case of the Omicron variant. There are fears this new variant could prove more transmissible and may exhibit resistance to vaccines.

People arriving in Ireland from the seven countries will have to quarantine at home for 10 days after entering the State. While the number of travellers impacted will be small, the reintroduction of travel restrictions marks a further return to tighter restrictions to bring Covid under control.

Amid plans to expand the State’s booster vaccine rollout, the Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, indicated support for recommendations by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) that sleepovers, Communions and indoor birthday parties and playdates for children should not take place for at least the next two weeks.

While the advice has not been formally considered by Government, Mr Donnelly said last night: “I certainly would endorse the advice. I think it’s very important as one of the protective measures for children of that age at the moment.”

People arriving here from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini and Mozambique will have to present “not-detected” pre-flight PCR result, regardless of vaccination status, and quarantine at home for 10 days, undergoing a further two PCR tests. The obligation is backdated for recent arrivals from these countries, who will be traced and contacted using the passenger locator form. The Garda will monitor compliance, initially.

Irish citizens and residents are advised not to travel to these countries, and to leave them if they are there. The new variant has raised questions over whether travel restrictions would be introduced if it were to become established in other European countries.

A Government source indicated the focus would be on concerted action across the bloc, with a host of legal, diplomatic and political difficulties inherent in restricting travel between EU countries. However, Coalition sources believe some coded system of travel between EU countries – such as the previous traffic light system – could be re-examined, if needed. The Government is hopeful collaboration and monitoring will help avoid further restrictions.

While no cases of the variant have been identified in Ireland, there was alarm in Government last night at the developments, which have also paved the way for a potential reintroduction of the lapsed mandatory hotel quarantine system. Proposals to pass legislation reactivating the system are being prepared for Cabinet, but no final decision has been taken on whether it will be reintroduced, although it is seen as likely.

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan has advised the examination of the reintroduction of mandatory hotel quarantine.

Pfizer indicated it can produce a tailor-made vaccine against Omicron in about 100 days, but the new variant added more pressure on the State’s vaccine booster campaign. It is to be extended to all people over 16, with people in their 50s and those with underlying conditions the next groups to be prioritised.

Meanwhile, US president Joe Biden said the United States will push for a global agreement that intellectual property protections should be waived on Covid-19 vaccines so they can be manufactured globally.

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