Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has confirmed that bookings have been paused on the State’s mandatory hotel quarantine system. Sources have said the pause will last for four days.
Mr Donnelly said that airlines will be contacted and asked not to let passengers on from high risk countries who do not have a booking on the system.
He was responding after it emerged that the reservation system for the State’s mandatory hotel quarantine system is not accepting bookings until next Monday.
“The department is operating on a precautionary principle. The hotel quarantine system has only been in place for 18 days, believe it or not. We have gone from 33 countries up to I think it’s 71 countries now. On a precautionary basis the department has paused the bookings to make sure we have the capacity,” he told RTE’s Six One News.
“There is still a high level of walk-ins which shouldn’t be happening. Some of the airlines which are meant to not be allowing people on the planes are letting them on so I know Minister [for Transport Eamon]Ryan is engaging with the carriers on that. There is significant additional capacity coming in on Monday, we’re going up from about 650 rooms up to about 960. And then the following Monday again a lot more coming online, we will be above 1300.”
It is understood that the Government has contacted Aer Lingus to tell it about pausing the hotel quarantine.
The carrier said in a statement that it requests passengers at check-in and/or boarding to provide evidence of their pre-booking at a mandatory hotel quarantine facility, as is required under the regulations governing the system.
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. "Aer Lingus will deny boarding where a passenger fails to provide evidence of the required rebooking".
At the time of writing Ryanair had not responded to queries as to how it would manage passengers from Category 2 countries who chosen not to or who had been unable to book accommodation in quarantine hotels.
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 capactiy” to check travel histories of people, unless they were on direct flight from those locations.
“Carriers have cooperated since the outset of the pandemic with a number of new travel restrictions to protect public health, most recently with the introduction of mandatory hotel quarantine and we expect that to continue.”
In a statement the Department of Health said it had agreed with the Tifco Hotel Group to temporarily pause the booking portal as a "precautionary measure to enable further assessment of capacity" for the coming days.
“Those who have already made their booking for mandatory hotel quarantine are not affected. Bookings can still be made for dates from Monday 19 April onwards.”
“The temporary pause will be kept under ongoing review should additional capacity become available,” it said.
The most recently available figures indicated that there was significant capacity available in the system last Friday, prior to the most recent expansion of the list of countries eligible for mandatory hotel quarantine.
Last Friday, there was 56.3 per cent capacity remaining in the system, and 271 rooms occupied, with 344 people quarantining. Ministers were told when signing off on plans to expand the system that there would be 959 rooms available by April 19th and 1147 by April 26th.
But there are significant concerns in Government that there will not be enough rooms and that there will either be queues of people trying to get into the country or that people may travel to Belfast or London before moving on to the State.
It is understood that meetings were held on Tuesday afternoon involving multiple stakeholders involved in the system from a range of different Government departments.
Earlier it emerged that the Government has asked Health Protection Surveillance Centre to examine whether fully vaccinated people can be exempted from mandatory hotel quarantine.
It comes as Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris said it was his "very firm view" that fully vaccinated people who had negative PCR tests should not have to quarantine in a hotel.
Government sources said the HPSC will provide advice on the matter within the next two to three weeks.
There is understood to be a push from Fine Gael Ministers in particular to allow fully vaccinated people to be exempt from mandatory hotel quarantine.
There have been a series of court challenges to mandatory hotel quarantine since last week.
Officials in the Department of Health are understood to have raised questions around how such passengers would prove they have been vaccinated at a time when the EU green pass or travel pass system is still under consideration.
But some within Government are arguing that Ireland has required evidence of a negative PCR test for months and there is no international standard certificate for that.
Speaking on Tuesday, Mr Harris said to force vaccinated people into quarantine “seems illogical,” he told RTÉ radio’s Today with Claire Byrne show.
Mandatory hotel quarantine was a “short, sharp, blunt instrument” and the Government was committed to discussing with health experts the necessity for people who were fully vaccinated to go into hotel quarantine, he said.
During an the Oireachtas Committee on Health meeting Fine Gael TD Colm Burke asked acting chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn about the prospect of international travellers being able to avoid quarantine if they can show clear evidence that they have been vaccinated.
Mr Glynn said that a very small proportion of people here and internationally have been fully vaccinated.
He said: “ Even where they are fully protected we still don’t have sufficient information on the issue of transmission.”
Mr Glynn added: “Even where they are fully protected from the variant that we have here at present we don’t yet have enough information and indeed we’re seeing increasing incidences of breakthrough infection with other variants in people who have been vaccinated internationally.
“Furthermore there’s the issue of whether or not we could have a system which properly authenticates vaccine certificates.”
Mr Glynn said “none of this is insurmountable” and “none of this is forever.”
He said the epidemiological situation across the EU for example is improving and there is a proposal for an Eu-wide system of vaccination certification.
“So I think we’re all going in the right direction but it will take a few weeks to get there.”
When asked about Niac's decision to pause the use of AstraZeneca for people under the age of 60, Mr Harris said he was not qualified to "second guess" Niac, but that there was no getting away from the fact that the decision will cause upheaval.
However, he was encouraged by comments from the acting chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn and Prof Karina Butler of Niac, that the decision will not have an impact on the long term roll out of the vaccine.
It was always important that concerns be acted upon and that the caution exercised by Niac should give people confidence.
If AstraZeneca has been the only vaccine available, the decision to pause would not have been made, he said. “We have to use the supply we have to best effect.”
The Minister was “really excited” about the introduction of rapid antigen testing in a pilot scheme in a number of universities. It was his intention to “dramatically increase” the on-campus attendance of third level students from the new academic year commencing in September/October.
Rapid testing was a “potential game changer” and could lead to outdoor gatherings. It made sense for his department to be involved as research was also part of his brief. The results could benefit the whole country, he added.