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Q&A: What are the new Covid travel rules and how will they work?

Changes include quarantine rules on entering the State, higher fines and Border checks

So what exactly has changed?
The easiest way to understand the most important changes announced by the Government on Tuesday is that everyone will have to undergo a period of mandatory quarantine somewhere after arriving into the State.

Wasn't that always the case?
No. Until now, the advice has been to restrict your movements for 14 days on arrival into the State – you could end this after five days if you had a clear PCR test. New rules mean you'll be forced to observe this period at home or in a hotel. You can still avoid the 14-day obligation with a clear PCR test after five days – unless you have arrived from the UK, South Africa or Brazil. You still need a PCR test taken within 72 hours of your departing flight.

What's so special about those countries?
They are where so-called "variants of concern" – coronavirus mutations that may be problematic and cause more disease – have emerged. The UK variant is widespread here, but in an attempt to control the other variants, arrivals from South Africa and Brazil will face mandatory hotel quarantine, alongside those who cannot produce a negative pre-flight PCR test.

Anything else for overseas travellers?
Yes: Minister for Justice Helen McEntee has directed that visa-free travel be banned from South Africa and most South American countries, except for in exceptional circumstances, due to the emergence of Covid-19 variants. There will also be greater and increased Garda presence at and around ports and airports.

What will the Garda be doing?
Enforcing existing rules on unnecessary journeys – they strictly speaking have the power to arrest over this, but it is never used. The Government is going to introduce a higher fine, of more than €500, for those outside their 5km and for reasons related to international travel.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said on Tuesday that gardaí would be able to call to peoples’ homes to check if they were quarantining. However, civil liberties groups have already flagged concerns about this, and that issue – of enforcement of mandatory home quarantine – could yet prove contentious.

When will all this take place?
Some of it immediately – visa changes and increased Garda presence, for example. Some will take a bit longer – arranging the basics of mandatory quarantine, such as finding hotels, and figuring out transport and security will all take a little longer, but this should be up and running within a week or so, so mandatory hotel quarantine for Brazilian and South African arrivals should be relatively quick.

There will also be legislative and regulatory changes needed for quarantining EU and UK citizens, and Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said there will be primary and secondary legislation needed for other aspects of the new regime. Government sources suggest it will be several weeks before everything is actually up and running. There’s a political risk for the Government, which will doubtless face the charge of announcing reforms that are not ready to be enacted.

Who will pay?
It looks like those using hotels will have to pay.

What about the Border?
As announced earlier this week by Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan, the Garda is going to set up checkpoints in a 5km buffer zone around the Border. Mr Ryan said on Tuesday that they would have the power to turn people back, and the Government has asked for the Attorney General's advice on fining non-residents who are picked up at these checkpoints, while there will now be a requirement to give an address on the State's passenger locator form, even if you're going on to the North. This is designed to enable further data sharing, most likely in the hope that reciprocal arrangements could make it easier to ensure those coming into the State via Northern Ireland are complying with their obligations. However, there's no actual deal on this yet, so it's still quite theoretical.

And the two-island solution?
Dialogue with the UK is ongoing – but we may end up with pretty similar regimes. British prime minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday that international arrivals from high-risk countries on a banned list will have to quarantine in government-provided accommodation, such as hotels, for 10 days. They will be transported directly to the quarantine accomodation from airport. The British government has not stated when the new restrictions will be introduced but, like Ireland, it could take several weeks. There may also be further developments at an EU level that would have an impact in Ireland.

How long will this last?
It seems many of the restrictions are tied to the length of public health rules – so will expire on March 5th unless extended. But obviously anything that leads to legislative change may have a longer lasting effect. As of Tuesday night, it wasn't clear precisely which new policies needed legislative changes.

More generally, Leo Varadkar said on Tuesday evening that even if everyone were to be vaccinated by September, it probably wouldn't allow for free travel by Christmas.

Elsewhere Varadkar and other Government sources have indicated that the limited mandatory hotel regime could be expanded if necessary – and a senior officials group has been asked to look at the practicalities of banning all non-essential travel, from some or all countries. So we may not have seen the last of tighter travel rules.