Defence Forces to play role in running quarantine system

Arrivals from 33 countries must quarantine for two weeks in designated hotels from Tuesday

Defence Forces officers will co-ordinate contacts between State departments and the private operator running the Covid-19 mandatory hotel quarantine system for the Government.

Mandatory hotel quarantine for passengers arriving from 33 Covid-high risk countries will start on Tuesday after Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly signed commencement orders on Monday night.

Mr Donnelly will outline details on the new policy at a press conference on Tuesday afternoon.

It emerged on Monday that junior officers at ranks between second lieutenant and captain are expected to supervise the contacts at each hotel and at Dublin and Cork Airports, Dublin Port and Rosslare Europort.

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Hotel managers and staff, along with the private security contractors and transport operators between the airports or ports and the quarantine hotels, will be able to raise any concerns with Defence Forces staff who will serve as the State liaison officer with the private hotel operators.

The expectation is that the quarantine system will require a staff of about 100 Defence Forces personnel with between 30 and 40 on duty at any one time on 24-hour oversight.

The Defence Forces will be tasked with carrying out a quality assurance role for the operation.

State officials are concerned about the sensitivities around the role to be played by army personnel and the perception of a military coordinating a system of mandatory quarantine that protects the public from Covid-19 but infringes on the civil liberties of individuals.

“This is a delicate piece. This is not martial law. It is not internment. It is not Myanmar,” said one source, referring to the Asian country where the military seized power in a coup last month.

Separation of people arriving into the State will take place “airside” at the airports where people from the 33 high-risk countries or those arriving without a negative Covid-19 PCR test will be met by staff and accompanied to buses for transport to their mandatory quarantine facility.

Passengers who arrive into the State from these countries will have to undergo two-week mandatory quarantine in a hotel at a cost to them of an estimated €2,000.

The new mandatory quarantine laws will act as a strong deterrent against travel into Ireland from high-infection areas, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said on Monday.

He said he anticipated the system would use the capacity (2,500 hotel bedrooms) set aside, particularly as more countries were added to the list from which those travelling would have to quarantine.

The 33 -country “category 2” list now includes only one EU State, Austria. However, high case numbers in EU states such as Czechia, Hungary and Malta could see them being added.

Mr Martin said mandatory quarantine would be at its strongest when the number of cases was very low in Ireland, and would help ensure they did not rise steeply again.

He said community transmission was the key issue at the moment.

The contract for hosting quarantining passengers has been awarded to the Tifco Hotel group, which operates 24 hotels in the State including the Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn Express near Dublin Airport, the Hilton Hotel at Kilmainham, Travel Lodge Hotels near airports, as well as Clontarf Castle.

“Mandatory quarantine will act as a deterrent for people coming into Ireland,” Mr Martin said, although he predicted “significant demand” for the rooms.

While anticipating the list of countries would be added to, he rejected mandatory quarantine for incoming passengers from all countries, for which some members of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) have argued.

He said the legislation required good public health grounds for countries to be added to the list, and that there would be no legal basis for applying the rule to all countries. He said it would make no sense and Nphet as a whole was clear about the issue “and agree with a balanced approach”.

The Taoiseach, speaking on RTÉ Radio’s News at One, said the operator of the scheme would be responsible for providing (private) security and the Garda Síochána would not have a role in policing the hotels.

“This is not prison We live in a liberal democracy. There are balances to be struck here,” he said.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times