Ministers defend mandatory hotel quarantine system

Roisín Shortall says Government failed to get its act together, leading to chaotic situation

An additional 16 countries have been added to the mandatory hotel quarantine list. Photograph: iStock

An additional 16 countries have been added to the mandatory hotel quarantine list. Photograph: iStock

 

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has defended the mandatory hotel quarantine system after it was suspended over capacity concerns.

The State’s quarantine regime – now one of the toughest in the world – has been widened to include 16 extra countries including the US, France, Belgium and Italy but it has been widely criticised with regard to the way it has been administered which, it is claimed, has led to a “chaotic situation”.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney also defended the system on Thursday and said it was required to keep out new variants of the virus.

He said the Government was looking at whether fully vaccinated people should be exempt from quarantine and that his obligation as a Minister was to make sure that the system was legally sound and implementable.

The system, which now applies to 71 countries, requires people intending to travel into Ireland to pre-book for their quarantine but no eligible rooms have been available in recent days, prompting a suspension of reservations until Monday.

In the meantime, it remains unclear what will happen to those who simply arrive from abroad with the Department of Health, when asked about the scenario by The Irish Times, stating simply that: “you must pre-book”.

There have also been a succession of legal challenges to the system initiated with claims that particular personal circumstances and the vaccination status of those involved should be taken into consideration.

Social Democrats co-leader Roisín Shortall has said it would be helpful if there was clarity from public health experts on the issue of fully vaccinated people arriving into the country.

What was the public health position on such people having to quarantine in a hotel when they were already fully vaccinated, she asked on RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland.

There was also an issue with the appeals process, she said. “The bar has been set very high.”

It did not make sense, she contended, that people could not make an appeal on humanitarian grounds before they departed the country from which they were travelling. Instead, they had to wait until they arrived in Ireland and were quarantining in a hotel.

Ms Shortall said that the Government had had plenty of time “to get its act together” but had failed to do so and instead there was now this “chaotic situation”.

There should have been enough hotel rooms to meet the demand for mandatory hotel quarantine, she said, because the numbers required should have been known through modelling.

Ms Shortall also pointed out that there had been assurances that people would not be allowed to get on flights without a negative PCR test result or pre-booked hotel quarantine, but that had not happened. That message had to be reinforced with the airlines.

The details for the mandatory hotel quarantine system should have been shared between a number of Government departments but as it was, she suggested, “a huge amount is falling on the Department of Health.”

The Government was now paying the price for the lack of planning with the chaotic situation. With a further 16 countries being added to the list from today, there was now a need to put a plan in place to deal with all the extra arrivals from those countries, she said.

Mr Varadkar said it was not as simple as the number of hotel beds available. He warned that there was going to be an issue of people coming into the country illegally through Northern Ireland.

Those arriving through Northern Ireland are currently required to participate in the mandatory hotel quarantine scheme if they have previously been in a one of the specified countries during the previous 14 days.

He added that the Government was examining the possibility of fully vaccinated people not having to quarantine, but that they are awaiting public health advice on the issue. He acknowledged that he did have reservations and questions about hotel quarantine, but said there was no question that he was “in the pocket of businesses or the airlines” as had been alleged.

Jennifer Janzen of the Brussels-based Airlines for Europe warned of the “practical difficulties” now facing airlines because of the Government’s action.

“The idea that airlines should be expected to deny boarding if passengers do not have mandatory hotel bookings on top of all the other requirements makes no sense and airline staff are simply not trained to police it,” she said.

Equally unimpressed, Virginia Lee of the European arm of Airport Council International said her organisation continues to oppose blanket quarantine rules.

“We have long advocated a risk-assessed approach which would see health-safety maintained on the basis of a combination of measures – not the imposition of blanket restrictions,” she told The Irish Times.

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