Q&A: What are the new Covid measures on children’s activities and travel?

From mask-wearing in primary schools to testing for incoming travellers and playdates

The Cabinet on Tuesday agreed a raft of new measures for schools, children’s activities and travel. But what are they, when do they take effect, and how will they be enforced?


What's the latest on masks in schools?
Previously, masks have been a requirement for children in post-primary, and staff in both primary and secondary schools. From now on this will be a requirement for all children from third class and up.

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This is not a requirement in law but it is a requirement in schools on public-health grounds. A guidance document based on advice from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre is being circulated to schools, and the requirement comes into effect on Wednesday.

Schools will be encouraged to show flexibility in the coming days, and there are exemptions on medical grounds. However, children would be refused entry to school if a medical cert exempting them from masking up is sought but not provided. The requirement extends to school transport, also from Wednesday.


What about mask-wearing for children in other settings?
There is a legal obligation for everyone aged 13 and above to wear face coverings on public transport and in certain other settings such as shops, libraries, cinemas, theatres, museums, airports and other indoor settings where people mix from different households.

The Government has now made a decision to recommend face masks and coverings for children aged nine and above in the same settings. This will only be public health advice, not a legal requirement.

This will be reviewed in mid-February 2022.

What is the advice around children's activities?
The National Public Health Emergency Team advised the Government that indoor community gatherings should be avoided for children aged 12 and younger for the next two weeks, including nativity plays, sleepovers, indoor birthday parties and playdates.

There are no guidelines, regulations or laws being signed or created around this, with the Government instead doubling down on asking that existing public-health advice to limit contacts be observed.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said before Cabinet that parents are being advised to make the "judgment calls" on reducing socialisation for their children. "It's not a strict 'no' on any one thing. It's just saying do what we're doing well,", and that the advice for children will be "the same as adults: restrict socialisation".

In a statement, the Government said parents should aim to reduce socialisation indoors in respect of children aged 12 and younger over the next two weeks. Because there is no policy change, as such, there is no issue of enforcement but there is an emphasis on people observing the advice for the next fortnight.


Will mandatory hotel quarantine (MHQ) make a comeback?
The old MHQ system that was so controversial during the summer has not been reintroduced. Cabinet took a decision on Tuesday to pass legislation putting it back on a statutory footing, which would give the Government the option to legally reintroduce it if it so chooses – but no decision has been made yet on whether it will.

If it does, it is not clear what the role or function of such a system would be yet, including whether it would be as extensive as earlier this year. Travel restrictions put in place on Tuesday and last Friday focus on testing and home quarantine.

The aim is to reintroduce the MHQ legislation this week.

What about home quarantine guidelines?
As of last Friday, there is a requirement on people arriving into the State with a travel history associated with seven southern African countries where the Omicron variant has been detected to quarantine at home for 10 days. People in their households must also restrict their movements. People arriving from these countries must present a clear PCR test on arrival, and must take two PCR tests while in home quarantine – on day two and day eight.

No countries were added to this list by the Government on Tuesday, despite the variant being identified in many countries, including within the European Union, since then. More countries may be added, and coalition sources indicate such a step would be based either on advice from Nphet or in step with the rest of the European Union. This is a regulation which was signed into force over last weekend.

What are the new Covid testing requirements for international travel?
Arising from a decision taken at Cabinet on Tuesday, all people arriving into the State must present a "not-detected" Covid-19 test. This will be a regulation, and the statutory instrument giving it legal effect will be in place by Friday, when the requirement kicks in. Children aged 11 and younger are not subject to the testing requirement.

Both PCR tests (taken up to 72 hours pre-arrival) and professionally-administered antigen tests (taken up to 48 hours pre-arrival) are acceptable.

Compliance will be checked by airlines and ferry companies.

Travel obligations are in place for two weeks, with Coalition sources of the view they will likely be extended after that.

*This article was amended on Wednesday, December 1st to reflect that 72- and 48-hour windows for PCR and antigen testing respectively apply to an individual's arrival into Ireland from abroad, not the time of departure as previously stated

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times