Fully vaccinated people will be exempted from hotel quarantine , Donnelly says
Online bookings for the system will resume this evening after extra capacity added
A file image shows people leaving the Crowne Plaza mandatory quarantine hotel after completing their quarantine period. Photograph: Collins
Rules exempting fully vaccinated people from the State’s mandatory hotel quarantine system will be signed “in the coming days”, while online booking for the programme will reopen this evening, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has announced.
Following a day which saw sustained criticism from the European Commission, embassies of EU countries, and the airline and travel industry, Mr Donnelly said that legal regulations to exempt fully vaccinated people and instead permit them to complete home quarantine are to be drafted.
The decision follows a rapid review and advice from the acting chief medical officer, Dr Ronan Glynn.
Extra capacity is to be added to the hotel rooms available for the State’s scheme, meaning people arriving into Ireland from designated states can book stays from this evening if they arriving from Saturday.
Bookings were suspended earlier this week after a higher than expected number of passengers arrived without bookings. Last week the State’s quarantine regime for arrivals – one of the strictest in the world – was widened to include 16 extra countries, including the US, France, Belgium and Italy.
Mr Donnelly defended the embattled system, which was introduced after a divisive row in Government, saying it is “working as intended to protect the country from the importatioon of Covid-19, particularly variants of concern”.
“To date, 18 people in mandatory hotel quarantine have tested positive for Covid-19, of which four involve probably variants of concern. I am very grateful to those that have entered mandatory quarantine and for playing their part to stop the spread of this disease.”
The capacity increase consists of an additional 305 rooms coming on-stream two days ahead of schedule. Capacity from this Saturday will be 959 rooms. From next Friday, April 23rd that will increase to 1,189 rooms, and by Monday April 26th, to 1,607 rooms.
Mr Donnelly said: “I welcome the intensive efforts made by both officials in my Department and the Tifco Hotel Group to bring about this increased capacity. Mandatory Hotel Quarantine is a very important public health measure and ensures we continue to have the strongest border biosecurity measures in Europe.”
On Thursday night Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the Government always said quarantining “would be challenging”.
“Ireland is not an island that can seal itself off, medium term, long term,” he said. But “as we vaccinate more and more, we need to revisit these policies”. He said the policy would evolve over time. He said aviation tourism and hospitality would need “exceptional and targeted measures”, along with the arts and entertainment industries.
Speaking later on RTÉ’s Prime Time programme, Mr Donnelly said he was planning to move “very quickly” on new rules exempting fully vaccinated people from having to stay in mandatory hotel quarantine and would be “putting the regulations together tomorrow”.
“We are now leading Europe by a country mile in terms of the biosecurity measures we have in place, it’s something we should be very proud of.”
Despite a “rocky week for the vaccination programme”, the country is still on target to meet the goals laid out for Q2, he said.
Earlier Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan said about 100 recent passengers into the State who have been accommodated in the mandatory hotel quarantine system didn’t have a required quarantine booking or failed to produce a negative Covid-19 test result on arrival here .
A total of 98 passengers who did not have required bookings for quarantine hotels or who failed to produced evidence of a negative Covid-19 test on arrival, and thus were subsequently taken to hotel quarantine, arrived here between April 8th and April 13th.
Of these, 50 were passengers who had arrived in Dublin from the designated “high risk” states for Covid-19 subject to mandatory hotel quarantine but who had transferred through other countries en route and didn’t have quarantine bookings.
Nineteen other passengers arrived from high-risk states on direct flights to Ireland but didn’t have quarantine bookings, and a further 29 were people who failed to produce evidence of a negative PCR test for Covid-19 on arrival.
On what happens if a situation arises that there are no rooms left in the mandatory hotel quarantine system, Mr Ryan said: “The Department of Health has to lead this because they’re the ones who are managing this whole system, and they are looking at plans . . . [for] if that does arise.”
Tanaiste Leo Varadkar said: “The airlines aren’t supposed to let people on the plane unless they have evidence that they have booked a place in hotel quarantine.”
He added: “These are people who are checking in at airports, not in the Republic of Ireland, they’re not in our jurisdiction.
“So it’s very difficult for us to enforce that.
“There will be occasions where people arrive in an airport or a port and don’t have a hotel booked and in those circumstances we’ll have to try to provide a place for them.”
He said he hasn’t heard any discussions that such arrivals could be deported or put in prison, adding: “We’ll have to find space for them as best we can.”
Separately 19 Covid cases have been detected through the mandatory quarantine system in its first period of operation.
All the cases were in hotel residents, apart from one in a member of staff.
Four of the cases involve one of the variants of concern, the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) briefing heard on Thursday evening.
Dr Glynn said it was early days for the new system. He also cautioned its success in preventing transmission of the disease may not, by definition, turn up in the data.
Earlier, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said scaling up the mandatory quarantine regime isn’t as simple as adding more hotel rooms, pointing to the support staff needed as well, but she said she does believe the capacity will be there.
Ms McEntee was asked if there would be consequences for airlines that do not stop passengers without required hotel quarantine bookings from boarding.
She said the Department of Transport has been working with carriers to ensure their passengers are aware of legal requirements to have a negative PCR test and quarantine.
She said some people have arrived in the country using certain carriers without booking rooms and the Government was “working with those airlines to try and ensure . . . [implementation] in the best way possible without having to penalise people”.
Ms McEntee said the vast amount of airlines are adhering to what they’ve been asked to do.
She was also asked about the concerns Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney raised about hotel capacity prior to the list of designated states subject to mandatory quarantine being expanded.
She said: “Everybody has raised questions and concerns around the introduction of hotel quarantine.
“If it were easy, everyone would do it, and we’re the first country in the EU to actually introduce it. It’s not an easy system to implement.”