A major row has erupted within Government over plans by the Department of Health to extend mandatory hotel quarantine to 43 additional countries, including the US, France and Germany.
Attorney General Paul Gallagher has written to the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly expressing concerns about the plans which have left other Ministers and the EU “furious”, senior sources confirmed.
A source with knowledge of the letter said it is “very clear” in expressing concerns that health officials have not followed the correct process or adhered to the legislation the Oireachtas passed on quarantine when formulating their advice.
There is concern in Government that the recommendation to add the countries has “over-reached” and has “misinterpreted the law we passed” and that European treaty rights and human rights have not been fully considered.
“They have gone way beyond variants to include countries with more Covid than us,” a source said.
The recommendation has raised a series of concerns including around whether the current capacity of 2,500 places is enough, what would be done about citizens who are stranded who cannot afford quarantine, what will happen to essential workers.
There is also concern that the EU was not consulted and that the plans could represent a “major breach” of European citizens’ right to travel freely. There are further fears about an impact on the Common Travel Area given it has been proposed that the Isle of Man be included in the list of high-risk countries. Another concern is around what period of review there would be to take the countries on or off the list and that the countries could be on the list for as long as Covid-19 variants exist.
Another issue which has been raised at the highest levels of Government is that there is not a sufficient individual assessment for each country. A lack of guidance for those who have been vaccinated has also been flagged as a concern.
The fear in Government is that the plans were being progressed by health officials without asking for advice or feedback before making the recommendation.
Sources in the Department of Health have pushed back against this idea and said that the consultation period is happening now, as would normally be the case after recommendations are made.
While there has been some speculation that Mr Donnelly could sign off on the plans without the full agreement of his Cabinet colleagues, this would be viewed as a “big political risk”.
Some in Government believe that if he did this, the new arrangements could be struck down in the courts. Further discussions will now be held in the coming days to decide how to proceed.
Government sources said the Nphet advisory group on travel had used three criteria for adding countries to the list. The first was a high incidence of outbreaks of variants of concern, namely the Brazilian and South African variants.
The second was if the 14-day incidence rate was more than 500 cases. The third was if the incidence rate was 2½ times the rate in Ireland during the relevant period.
Italy and Germany have recently announced tightening of rules on inward travel, including from EU countries, but Ireland would be the first country to require a mandatory hotel quarantine from most other EU states.
Quarantining is seen as a tool to control movement from countries where virus numbers are high and also to limit the arrival of new variants. Concerns in Cabinet are based in part on the difficulty of unwinding the scheme as more and more people are vaccinated across Europe and the US.
Business group Ibec noted with “great concern” the proposed extension of the mandatory quarantine measures to cover more countries, which it said could harm Ireland’s reputation as an open economy.
The group urged the Government “to fully consider all of the economic, business, social and reputational implications of such a decision”.
The Cabinet is expected to make a decision on the issue next week.