Risk of Omicron variant: Additional Covid testing for arrivals into State under consideration

Pre-travel PCR result may be required as test system here under strain

It is understood the plans envisage no home quarantine for those who arrive with a clear PCR result, except for those with a travel history involving one of seven southern African countries already subject to extra restrictions.  Photograph: Alan Betson

It is understood the plans envisage no home quarantine for those who arrive with a clear PCR result, except for those with a travel history involving one of seven southern African countries already subject to extra restrictions. Photograph: Alan Betson

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Expanded Covid testing requirements for people arriving into the country are being examined, under draft plans discussed by public health officials on Sunday.

While formal advice has not been issued, it is understood discussions included a requirement for all arrivals to have a pre-departure PCR test, regardless of vaccination status.

The obligation would be on the traveller arriving into the country to have the test result already, rather than to obtain one in Ireland, with the testing system here under strain.

It is understood the plans envisage no home quarantine for those who arrive with a clear PCR result, except for those with a travel history involving one of seven southern African countries already subject to extra restrictions.

If all arrivals from overseas were subject to the requirement for a clear test, that would include arrivals from the UK, which has exempted Ireland from its PCR test and home quarantine obligations. Health officials are of the view there is a greater risk of importation of the Omicron variant from the UK to Ireland than vice versa.

Those who turn up without a PCR test could be subject to home quarantine or a fine if they do not produce a clear result. Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan will brief coalition leaders on Monday evening, ahead of the Cabinet on Tuesday, which will also consider proposals to legislate for the lapsed mandatory hotel quarantine system.

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Genetic sequencing

Dr Cillian de Gascun, the director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory, said he would “be surprised if [Omicron] hadn’t already arrived [in Ireland] to some degree”.

However, Ireland’s ability to detect the new variant may be hampered by a lack of genetic sequencing. Less than 10 per cent of cases are being sequenced at present, the lowest level since February, according to the most recent update from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC). Almost 50 per cent of cases were being sequenced last spring but activity was scaled back after the Delta variant became dominant.

Dr Cillian de Gascun, director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory: would “be surprised if [Omicron] hadn’t already arrived [in Ireland] to some degree”. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
Dr Cillian de Gascun, director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory: would “be surprised if [Omicron] hadn’t already arrived [in Ireland] to some degree”. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

Scientists can reduce the need for genetic sequencing through a technique that uses the standard PCR test to detect possible Omicron cases. However, this facility is available in only one Irish centre, at the NVRL laboratory at Backweston, Co Kildare.

This lab has capacity for several thousand tests daily, which would allow for monitoring of the “general population prevalence” of the variant. A backward review of cases since the start of the month is also being undertaken.

‘We’re worse-off’

Elsewhere, the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) will meet on Thursday to consider a winter strategy for Covid, rather than limiting its discussions to Christmas. Dr de Gascun, a member of Nphet, said it was important to minimise the risk of importation but also to control the current Delta wave.

“Where we are at the moment compared to last year, by every measure, we’re worse-off.

“We want to try to avoid restrictions as much as we can, but the flipside of that is we need society to take on some of the additional burden by reducing the opportunities the virus has to transmit,” he said.

Sources indicated last week’s preliminary discussion at Nphet regarding the festive season was high-level, but that “everything [is] on the table – but in the range of tightening controls, not closures” – although the Omicron variant may change that.

Meanwhile, it has emerged that people who received the Janssen vaccine will not receive boosters until mid-December, despite advice it should be given from three months after vaccination. Over 230,000 people were given the vaccine more than three months ago. Studies show the effectiveness of the one-shot vaccine drops sharply after one month.

Separately, the Munster rugby squad will remain in Cape Town after a member tested positive for Covid-19.

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