Hotel quarantine: Government may exempt people with vaccine certs

Exemption would only apply to people vaccinated with jabs approved by EU

The Government is considering plans to allow people with domestic vaccination certificates exemptions from mandatory hotel quarantine – but only for shots approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

The issue of identifying those who are eligible for exemption was identified as an early challenge to changes to the quarantine system announced on Thursday night.

This is due to the absence of a universally recognised certificate for vaccination, either at a European Union level or a global level. However, in order to put the new exemption system in place, Government sources indicated locally granted certificates from other jurisdictions would be accepted.

However, given these would only be accepted for EMA-approved vaccines, it would mean those in receipt of Russia’s Sputnik vaccine or the Chinese Covid-19 vaccine would still have to quarantine.

A similar system of recognising PCR test results from other jurisdictions is in operation, with measures in place to safeguard standards.

New regulations to put the exemption system in place may be signed as soon as Friday evening, or over the weekend. The system may be adjusted as more universally recognised ways of verifying vaccinations across different jurisdictions, such as the European Digital Green Certificate, come on-stream.

European letter

Meanwhile, the European Commission has given Ireland 10 days to respond to a letter outlining "concerns" about mandatory hotel quarantine, which may be excessive and discriminatory, the EU executive said.

It comes after Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy and France were added to the "red list", provoking a furious reaction from ambassadors and demands for clarification of how countries are chosen.

The Commission has queried whether the same results could be achieved through less severe measures and has asked for clarification on how countries are selected for the red list, as the five are not the areas with the highest infection rates in the EU.

"The Commission has concerns regarding this measure in relation to the general principles of EU law, in particular proportionality and non-discrimination," Commission spokesman Christian Wigand said.

“The Commission sent a letter to the Irish authorities asking for clarifications on this matter and on the criteria used to determine the designated countries.

“The Commission believes that the objective pursued, which is the protection of public health during the pandemic, could be achieved by less restrictive measures In line with the Council recommendations.”

He added that “clear and operational exceptions for essential travel should be ensured”, and invited Ireland to “align more closely” with an agreement of the 27 member states earlier this year to coordinate on travel restrictions.

Ireland is the seventh EU country to fall foul of the Commission over Covid-19 travel restrictions, after a string of countries tightened controls and instituted border checks in fear over the prevalence of vaccine-resistant new variants.

Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary and Sweden also received letters from the Commission earlier this year due to travel restrictions, including checks imposed by Germany on its land border with the Czech Republic due to soaring infections there, and an outright ban on casual travel by Belgium.

The 27 member states previously agreed that “all non-essential travel, especially to and from high-risk areas, should be strongly discouraged”, but it is up to member states to choose what health measures to apply to travellers. Mandatory hotel quarantine is not specifically ruled out.

However, under EU law measures must be proportional and not discriminatory, and member states have agreed to use common criteria to pick what regions to put on the “red list”, namely the map of risk in Europe created by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

The Commission’s concerns centre on the criteria used to pick the five member states affected, as they are not all “deep red” on the ECDC’s map, while other countries which are deep red yet are not on Ireland’s list. On the issue of proportionality, the EU countries agreed in January that “Any measures taken should thus not extend beyond what is strictly necessary to safeguard public health.”

The Department of Health did not respond to a request for comment. But previously, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said he made “no apologies to the commission or to anybody else for putting in place the measures that our public health teams believe are the right measures to keep people in this country safe”.

The Department of Health has also said it will keep the list of countries on the red list under constant review.