Covid variants: Government to consider tighter curbs on travel from South Africa, South America

New legislation to enforce mandatory State quarantine in hotels for passengers passed

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee is  to seek Government approval to extend an  ban on visa-free travel from South Africa and most South American countries due concern over  Covid-19 variants. Photograph: iStock

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee is to seek Government approval to extend an ban on visa-free travel from South Africa and most South American countries due concern over Covid-19 variants. Photograph: iStock

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The Government is set to consider tighter restrictions on international travel as the Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has promised that a new system for mandatory hotel quarantine will be in place “within weeks”.

The Minister for Justice Helen McEntee is expected to seek Government approval on Tuesday to extend an existing ban on visa-free travel from South Africa and most South American countries due to the threat posed by Covid-19 variants.

The measures had been due to expire on March 5th. It is understood Ms McEntee will also seek the Cabinet’s permission to further extend the ban to other non-EEA countries in future although the specific locations have not yet been agreed.

New legislation to enforce mandatory State quarantine in hotels for passengers from high-risk countries passed all stages in the Oireachtas on Monday and will now go to the President for signature.

The most complicated aspects of the system centre around the private security staff to be used by the hotels to police the quarantine, arrangements around physical exercise and food delivery to rooms, and the frequency of testing for hotel and other staff managing the system of quarantine.

It is understood that gardaí will be called to hotels if those staying do not comply with the rules or leave the facility before they are allowed to.

Senior garda management have informed the Government that the force should not be on site at the facilities and should not have a role in escorting passengers from planes and ports to the hotels.

In a letter to the Fine Gael parliamentary party sent on Monday, Mr Varadkar said the new system will be in place within weeks.

Easing of restrictions

He further said that in the run up to Easter “if we continue on the current trajectory in terms of falling cases and reduced pressure on our hospitals, consideration will be given to the following changes on April 5th: relaxation of the 5km rule, re-opening construction, click and collect and allowing more outdoor activity to take place. No further easing of restrictions will be considered until the end of April or early May.”

Mr Varadkar said that the Covid-19 vaccination programme will be accelerated in March and April. Roughly 100,000 vaccines will be administered per week in March rising to between 200,000 and 300,000 a week in April, he told Fine Gael TDs and Senators.

Meanwhile, the target of vaccinating all over-85s by the end of this week is unlikely to be achieved, according to the GP coordinating the community vaccination effort.

At least 30 smaller GP practices which have yet to receive a vaccine delivery or a date this week for a delivery are likely to have to wait until next week to inoculate their oldest patients.

Vaccination of over-85s

Dr Denis McCauley, chair of the GP committee of the Irish Medical Organisation, said all GP practices “who have engaged with the IMO” – about 1,300 – would complete the vaccination of over-85s as planned this week.

He said efforts were being made to contact some smaller practices which hadn’t “buddied up” with neighbouring practices as recommended. He said other practices which have yet to be given a delivery slot would hear soon from the HSE, which is giving 48 hours’ notice of delivery.

Some 42,000 older patients are to be vaccinated this week, the same as last week. One further death of a Covid-19 patient was reported on Monday, as well as 687 new confirmed cases. For the first time this year, there were no admissions to ICU in the previous 24 hours.

Although Monday’s case count is considerably higher than the 200-400 cases a day figure originally forecast for the start of March by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), officials said steady progress was still being made. However, it will take “five to six weeks” to get down to 200 cases a day, and “months” to reduce daily cases to the low single digits, according to Nphet official Prof Philip Nolan.

France last night agreed to permit people aged over 65 with underlying health problems to be given the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, reversing an earlier decision that it should be for under-65s only.

The decision will put pressure on State health officials to loosen the age restrictions for the more easily handled vaccine, which is not being administered to people over the age of 70.

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