The Government has not agreed on exactly how low Covid-19 case numbers have to be before the economy can be re-opened, the Tánaiste has told the Dáil.
Leo Varadkar also warned of the potential for legal challenge over mandatory hotel quarantining for arriving passengers at Irish ports and airports.
He told Social Democrats joint leader Catherine Murphy that it could be argued that it would be “disproportionate to impose mandatory hotel quarantine on people who don’t have Covid”, when the State does not do that to people resident in Ireland who have the virus.
The issue was raised as the number of countries from which arriving passengers will be quarantined will be extended. Eighteen more countries, including 16 in Sub-Saharan Africa will be added along with Brazil and South Africa.
Ms Murphy said it was very difficult for people to take about quarantining being disproportionate. She said the public see that “it’s okay for people to go on holidays, they can’t send their kids to school. That’s why it’s hard.”
She said the need for mandatory quarantine was all the more important because of the risk of importing new variants that could be vaccine resistant, and the physical and emotional impact on frontline health workers was unsustainable.
The Kildare TD added that suppressing the virus is going to be really difficult and she asked how the Government would decide the level of Covid cases before the economy is re-opened and its strategy.
The Tánaiste said “there really isn’t any strategy unfortunately that avoids the risk of rolling lockdowns, or snap lock downs”.
He pointed to Perth in Australia which has opted for a zero-Covid strategy. Last week it had “one or two cases of community transmission” resulting in a lockdown of the city.
He said that, with the added complication of the Border, “if we applied the same policy here we would probably have snap lockdowns every week or every two weeks every three weeks, so we have to bear that in mind”.
Mr Varadkar also told the Kildare North TD that while there had been a significant drop in the number of cases since the peak of the third wave in mid-January “these figures are still higher than the peak of the first wave, and we have a long way to go yet before we’re in a position to ease restrictions substantially.
“We need to get down to much lower numbers than we have now. We haven’t agreed, an exact number.”
He said there is a “range of strategies”. It was not just the five-day or seven-day case number average.
“It’s not just the positivity ratio, it’s not just the number of people in ICU. It’s not just the number of people in hospital. This is not just the number of hospital beds available, you have to look at all of these things”.
He said the advice is that using one or two metrics “is too crude, and the Government has accepted that advice”.
On mandatory quarantining he said “there are lots of people in the country who have tested positive for Covid. Unfortunately, not all of them are in quarantine. And that’s where we may very well run into a very genuine legal issue around proportionality ,because the vast majority of people traveling in from overseas don’t have Covid.
“They have a test to say they don’t. Whereas we know that there are hundreds of people every day in Ireland already being tested positive recovered and we don’t match really quarantine them.”
Meanwhile, the Government will unveil its plan for managing the pandemic the week after next, Taoiseach Micheal Martin said on Thursday morning, but he warned against expectations of anything other than a limited reopening and said foreign travel for holidays was unlikely this year and “certainly for the next number of months”.
Mr Martin said the Government would announce further restrictions on inbound travel later on Thursday, with another 20 countries added to the list which will shortly require mandatory hotel quarantine.
He said that this would include countries from sub-Saharan Africa, the United Arab Emirates and Austria, where authorities are currently worried about an outbreak in ski resorts.
He reiterated that the reopening of schools and construction remained the Government’s priority, but there needed to be caution because of the wider impact on public health of more than one million people moving around at the same time, he said.
He said that a decision on this year’s Leaving Cert will take place next week to provide clarity for students.
It was important for students to have class time to facilitate options and alternatives, he told RTÉ Radio One’s Morning Ireland.
Getting numbers down was “a prize worth fighting for” and September remained the target for having “critical mass” vaccinated, but there were no “definitives” and he could not give a timeline as the delivery of vaccines was out of his control.
The arrival of the Johnson&Johnson vaccine, which was one dose, “will make a real difference”.
Primary legislation will be required to implement the proposed €2,000 fine for people making non-essential trips abroad and it would be published next week, he said. It was “regrettable that people don’t get it”, referring to the small number of people travelling.
Everyone needed to adhere to the restrictions to avoid the importation of new variants of the virus, he said.
On the Northern Ireland protocol, Mr Martin said there was a need to “dial down” the rhetoric on both sides. Everyone should bear in mind that it had been only five to six weeks and there were bound to be teething problems, but some people had not been prepared.
The AstraZeneca dispute had gotten to “too high a pitch” and he wanted a harmonious relationship between the UK and the EU. “I wasn’t happy with everything in the last few weeks. We all need to cool down.”
There were mechanisms for dealing with “these issues” and there should be concentration on “making things work for people”. What was being experienced now was the manifestation of Brexit. People needed to “pull back”. The protocol was a great opportunity for Northern Ireland, he said.
He denied that the €80,000 increase in pay for the top civil servant in the Department of Health was a “slap in the face” for healthcare workers. He said health was the most challenging of all Government departments and there was a need to change how health was perceived, but it had been performing well during Covid.
There was a huge amount of activity in the health department and the post required additional remuneration.
Decisions had to be taken sometimes that it would have been easier not to make because of public perception. One lesson that had been learned during the pandemic was that there was a need for reform and he wanted to see a reformed health service, he s aid, but to do so would require management and value for money.