The State’s public health team has expressed fresh concerns about Covid-19 variants and has called for action to ensure that people undergoing home quarantine are adhering to the rules.
In a letter to the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly sent last Thursday, the acting chief medical officer Ronan Glynn said that the Nphet also backed the decisions made by the travel advisory group in deciding which high-risk countries should be added to the mandatory hotel quarantine list.
The letter also called for “ongoing consideration” be given to a temporary restriction of non-essential travel into the EU.
Speaking about the Covid-19 picture generally, Dr Glynn said that the "epidemiological situation in Ireland appears to be stable or potentially improving."
“Disease incidence, while still high, is stable or decreasing. However, it is noted that there is currently significant uncertainty due to the potential effect of the Easter period on factors such as patterns of test referrals along with a range of other disease indicators.”
He wrote that a review of the relevant epidemiological data in relation to children is “reassuring and indicated that the recent return to in-person education has been associated with moderate and transient increases in incidence amongst children mostly explained by changes in testing due to high levels of vigilance and oversight leading to increased case ascertainment”.
“The numbers of confirmed cases in hospital and ICU have continued to reduce,” he said.
The reproduction number is uncertain and estimated to be close to, or just below, 1.
In relation to international travel, mandatory quarantine and the management of variants, the Nphet “reiterated its ongoing significant concerns regarding the potential risks posed by the importation of variants of concern and in noting legal advice available to the Government which advises that a mandatory hotel quarantine regime should be targeted towards the highest risk states, endorses the methodological approach taken by the Expert Advisory Travel Group with regard to the designation of States as highest risk.”
The Nphet recommended that “measures be taken to ensure that those travelling from non-designated states and who are subject to home quarantine are adhering to that quarantine and are availing of a PCR test at day five post arrival in Ireland”.
The team also recommended that whole genome sequencing be undertaken on all confirmed cases linked to travel, whether from non-designated or designated states.
Controversy surrounding the mandatory hotel quarantine system continued on Wednesday as several Ministers came out strongly in favour of considering exemptions for fully vaccinated people.
The idea was first broached by Minister for Higher and Further Education Simon Harris, but it is understood it was discussed further at Cabinet on Wednesday morning, with support for the idea from Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien and Minister for Justice Helen McEntee.
Well-placed sources said a wide-ranging and long discussion about mandatory hotel quarantine also included the possibility of adopting a more “humanitarian” approach to the system, including looking at the cases so far and perhaps examining the appeals process.
It is understood Ms McEntee also emphasised that other departments should be prepared to assist the Department of Health more on issues like mandatory hotel quarantine.
Earlier, it was confirmed that a fully vaccinated Irish woman who took a High Court legal challenge while in mandatory hotel quarantine has been released, following a negative coronavirus test.
Emma Kelly left the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Dublin on Tuesday evening.
The 30-year-old woman is fully vaccinated with the AstraZeneca vaccine and had received two negative coronavirus tests before her departure for Ireland, her solicitor, Michael French, told the High Court on Monday.
After the results of a PCR test on Tuesday came back negative, she was allowed to leave the hotel last night.
‘Lack of foresight’
Meanwhile, the chief executive of the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC), Danny McCoy, has criticised the "lack of foresight" shown by the Government in adding to the mandatory hotel quarantine list countries with significant and large-scale strategic interests with Ireland.
From Thursday passengers from an additional 16 countries will be required to quarantine in a State-assigned hotel. Included on the new list are Belgium, France, Italy and Luxembourg, as well as the United States and Canada.
There was “plenty of time” to think through the concept of mandatory hotel quarantine and its benefits, and adding countries such as the United States, France and Italy raises questions of competence, he said.
Speaking on RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Claire Byrne programme, he said not enough consideration was given to the "damage that's done by hotel quarantine to people's lives" and to the business system and the "brand of Ireland being open for business".
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly announced on Tuesday evening that the hotel quarantine system would not accept any new bookings until Monday as it emerged the system was reaching capacity.
Mr McCoy said a “blanket message” has gone out to the world that travel to Ireland requires 14 days of quarantine and the imagery surrounding this poses a problem.
“Particularly since the US was added to the list, the amount of queries coming in from senior executives saying: ‘What’s going on in Ireland? How are we going to actually get critical people into critical places with this 14 days?’,” he said.
He said the lack of co-ordination with Northern Ireland and Britain means the benefits of the State's quarantine system are "dubious". There is a "really distinct difference" between Ireland's borders and those of New Zealand, where mandatory hotel quarantine has been hailed for eliminating the virus, Mr McCoy added.
“If we were co-ordinated it might make sense . . . It is nonsensical to go half the zero-Covid strategy when we haven’t got co-ordination on the island,” he said.
Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan told RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland programme that the number of hotel quarantine "walk-ins" had been "slightly higher" than the Government anticipated.
“We will see an increase in the hotel capacity. There is provision for that sort of extra people coming,” he said, adding that the issue will be discussed on Wednesday by Cabinet.
Sinn Féin's health spokesman David Cullinane said the hotel quarantine capacity issue was a "shambles".
Mr Cullinane said the issue was down to a lack of planning and he said the Government “has to take responsibility for rushing in with no plan”.