Covid-19 and travel: Quarantine and increased Garda checks near Dublin airport on cards
Public health team says lockdown should continue until at least end of February Tighter restrictions on international travel under consideration
Arrivals from South Africa and Brazil, as well as other South American countries, may face a period of hotel quarantine. File photograph: The Irish Times
Ministers will next week consider restricting arrivals from South Africa and Brazil in addition to closer monitoring of Irish people’s quarantine at home, as countries across Europe move to restrict international travel.
The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) has also advised that current restrictions should be extended to the end of February, denting hopes of a reopening of the construction sector at the start of next month.
Sources expect that restrictions will be extended until at least the end of February, although Government hopes that some elements of education, especially special education, may reopen next month. There is also hope a partial reopening of construction may be possible later in the month.
A range of options on tighter quarantine restrictions, including changes to the visa regime, were discussed by senior officials on Friday ahead of a meeting of the Cabinet’s Covid sub-committee on Monday. But it is clear that a tightening of restrictions is on the way.
While there are continuing misgivings at senior level over the effectiveness and enforceability of a blanket mandatory quarantine, arrivals from South Africa and Brazil, as well as other South American countries, may nonetheless face a period of hotel quarantine if a full ban is not pursued. Sources said this approach would allow the State to “test out” how such a system would work.
It is also expected that Garda enforcement of the ban on non-essential travel will be stepped up on routes to Dublin Airport.
Amid growing fears among EU governments about new variants of the disease, Taoiseach Micheál Martin indicated on Friday that more restrictions were on the way, and that the current lockdown would be extended and reviewed every four weeks.
Asked about further travel restrictions on Friday, Mr Martin said that officials were working on proposals but that the Common Travel Area with the UK was a “complication” for any new restrictions.
Mr Martin said the Border with Northern Ireland could not be sealed and that a “two-island” approach – with the Republic and the UK adopting common requirements and restrictions for incoming travellers – “could be pursued”. But he played down reports that such an approach was imminent, saying instead that contacts with the British government were “very exploratory and very embryonic”.
A spokesman for Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said he had “been of the view for some time that stronger measures on incoming international travel are required”, including “the potential for new measures and also more robust enforcement of existing measures”.
As the EU prepares to propose new travel curbs, some member states are moving ahead independently. On Friday, Belgium announced a ban on all non-essential trips to and from the country until March.
British prime minister Boris Johnson said at a press conference that the country “may need to go further to protect our borders”. He also said the B117 variant detected in Kent, which now accounts for 60 per cent of new cases in the Republic, “may be associated with a higher degree of mortality”.
Asked if a “two-island” approach could “work realistically”, Mr Martin said: “It could be pursued. There’s lots of issues around implementation and delivery on that.”
Mr Martin said that the Government remained in discussion with education partners about reopening special education “as soon as that’s possible”. Government sources are optimistic that at least some special education could open next week, or at the latest the week after.
Meanwhile, fresh doubts have emerged over the delivery schedule of the “game-changer” AstraZeneca vaccine. The company told the European Commission that there would be delays in the delivery of the vaccine compared with the forecast for the first quarter of the year.
In hospitals, there are growing concerns about capacity in ICU units this weekend. Staff in Cork University Hospital were asked to volunteer for shifts to provide critical care on Friday night as the hospital was hit by staff absences due to Covid-19. The HSE said that patients were being transferred from the west of the country to ICU units in Dublin hospitals, and sources said that there were likely to be more transfers this weekend and into next week.
An additional 52 coronavirus-related deaths were reported in the State on Friday night, alongside a further 2,371 confirmed cases.