The Nphet Epidemiological Team is meeting regularly this weekend to monitor the developing Omicron variant situation in Europe and is “considering further required measures”, the Department of Health said in a statement this evening.
On Saturday night, the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) said it was aware of new cases of Omicron in the UK, Italy, Germany and Belgium even though it has not been formally notified by European Alert Systems as yet.
“The Nphet Epidemiological Team are meeting regularly over the weekend to monitor the situation and are currently considering further required measures,” it said.
It added that a series of initial measures have been put in place to mitigate against the arrival of this variant to Ireland.
“The situation regarding this new variant will be kept under continuous review by all relevant bodies.”
Measures currently in place include the emergency brake for travel to and from the seven countries of concern in respect of the variant.
The Department of Foreign Affairs has changed its travel advisory to “avoid non-essential travel” to these countries. Irish residents returning home from these countries will be required to undergo strict home quarantine regardless of vaccine status or recovery status. They will also need to undergo PCR testing during quarantine.
“Regulations are being drawn up urgently to give effect to the new travel and home quarantine policies,” said the Nphet statement.
“The Department of Justice is arranging increased BMU spot-checking of passengers on arrival.”
Nphet also confirmed that mandatory hotel quarantine options are being examined on a contingency basis.
The Irish Government is to review the steps taken by the UK government against the new Covid-19 Omicron variant, which requires all travellers entering the state take a PCR test by the second day of arrival.
A Government source said that all responses to the variant were under review including the UK’s response announced by prime minister Boris Johnson on Saturday.
A series of meetings will be held in the coming days to address the public health challenges posed to Ireland by the Omicron variant, first discovered in South Africa.
The source said that advice was not to follow the UK lead for the moment but to await the outcome of a series of high-level discussions over the next few days on the best approach. That might include a decision to follow the UK’s lead requiring all incoming passengers to take a PCR test upon arrival and self-isolate until they receive a negative result. However, that possibility has yet to be discussed by senior ministers and public health advisers.
It is also understood that work is also being done this weekend on a new passenger locator form for people arriving into Irish territory. This will ensure that the original place of travel is included in the form. None of the seven countries in Southern Africa which originally notified cases of the new variant have direct flights into Ireland.
It comes following the announcement that legislation is being prepared to reintroduce mandatory hotel quarantine. Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan said on Saturday it would be the first item on the agenda at the Cabinet meeting next Tuesday.
On Friday, the Irish Government followed the European Union in agreeing to implement an "emergency brake" on arrivals from seven southern African countries.
Mr Ryan also said the Department of Foreign Affairs was working with a “small number” of people in southern Africa who were trying to get back to Ireland following the travel restrictions.
Mr Ryan said there were limited options available for people with the airlines and the department was looking at chartering a plane to repatriate these people.
Mr Ryan said news of the Omicron variant was a shock and one of the most disheartening recent developments in the pandemic.
“I’ll be honest, I was frightened yesterday. It was a blow. I was thinking if we get these boosters out in the next few weeks we’ll be in better shape, and we will.”
He said it was not clear yet if this new variant was more transmissible or was able to bypass some of the protections offered by vaccines.
Asked if the Cabinet would consider other restrictions in addition to mandatory quarantine, Mr Ryan said the truth was that a lot of what has been done will have to be continued.
Under the restrictions announced on Friday, people arriving into Ireland 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.
Sinn Féin’s health spokesman David Cullinane said it was accepted the Omicron variant was a real concern and there was a need to move fast.
A spokesperson for the department said it was providing consular assistance to Irish citizens who had requested it. Concerned Irish citizens travelling in South Africa can contact with the Irish Embassy in Pretoria by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
For those in other countries in the region contact details are available here.