State facing pressure from EU countries after expanding quarantine list

Greencore chief Patrick Coveney accuses Government of ‘incompetence and lack of foresight’

Greencore ceo Patrick Coveney strongly criticised the Government’s mandatory hotel quarantine policy.  File image: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times

Greencore ceo Patrick Coveney strongly criticised the Government’s mandatory hotel quarantine policy. File image: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times

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The State is facing pressure from EU member states to explain why they were put on the list for mandatory quarantine, and how the system is going to operate.

Embassies of several European Union member states told The Irish Times that they want the Department of Foreign Affairs to clarify several issues, including how the system will work for special situations such as the shared custody of children, and a timeline for the lifting of quarantine.

There has also been rising criticism from business people about the travel restrictions, including from Greencore chief executive Patrick Coveney who said it was “hard to overstate the incompetence and lack of foresight” in the Government’s mandatory hotel quarantine plan.

On Tuesday evening, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly confirmed that bookings had been paused on the State’s mandatory quarantine system due to a “a high level of walk-ins which shouldn’t be happening”.

Mr Donnelly said that airlines would be contacted and asked not to let passengers on from high risk countries who did not have a booking on the system.

In a post on Twitter on Tuesday evening responding to the news, Mr Coveney - a brother of Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney - said “Ireland is now officially shut off from US & most of EU with little hope of being able to safely source the massive levels of hotel ‘prison capacity’ to sustain #MHQ [mandatory hotel quarantine] policy.”

The French and Belgian embassies emphasised their belief that there should be co-ordination on travel restrictions, with both saying while there had been exchanges in the weeks running up to the expansion of the list, they were informed only just before their inclusion on the list.

A spokeswoman for the French embassy said the department had been helpful during exchanges on mandatory hotel quarantine, but said that it had “made clear” in EU forums that it favours “maximum EU co-ordination and as little travel restriction within the EU as possible”.

‘Short notice’

“The French embassy was informed shortly prior to the measure was about to be adopted. This measure will hit the French community in Ireland (an estimated 25,000 to 30,000) hard,” a spokeswoman said.

A spokesman for the Belgian embassy said it was informed “at very short notice”. He said Belgium had been advocating in favour of maximum co-ordination within the EU since the start of the pandemic.

“Such a co-ordination should include consultations with other EU member states before imposing travel restrictions. The embassy was informed of the measure at very short notice, just before the measures were adopted.”

He said the policy would impact on the Belgian community in Ireland, “members of which voiced their concerns to the embassy”. The Austrian ambassador to Ireland, Thomas Nader, said that while he fully accepted the Irish decisions, “we would like to be provided with the epidemiological parameter and, based on that, the precise data upon which this decision was based and continues to be based”.

Belgium said it had requested the same information, as well as the timeline for the measures being lifted, as did France. The spokeswoman for the French embassy said it will also seek information for special situations such as shared custody of children, and also said it hopes the measures “will be lifted soon”.

The embassies welcomed plans from the department to arrange briefings on the quarantine system, and indicated they would encourage their citizens to comply with the measures.

On Tuesday, Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris said it was his “very firm view” that fully vaccinated people who had negative PCR tests should not have to quarantine in a hotel.

Fully vaccinated

Government sources said the Health Protection Surveillance Centre will provide advice on the matter within the next two to three weeks. There is a push from Fine Gael Ministers in particular to allow fully vaccinated people to be exempt from mandatory hotel quarantine.

Officials in the Department of Health are understood to have raised questions around how such passengers would prove they have been vaccinated at a time when the EU green pass or travel pass system is still under consideration.

Mr Harris said to force vaccinated people into quarantine “seems illogical”. Mandatory hotel quarantine was a “short, sharp, blunt instrument”, he told RTÉ Radio’s Today with Claire Byrne show.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said it bases its decisions on variants of concern, which is prioritised over very high incidence and high incidence of Covid-19. Very high incidence is classified as having 500 cases per 100,000 of population, while high incidence is classified as having less than that but 2½ times greater than Ireland’s 14-day incidence.

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