Home quarantine among compromises to be discussed by Ministers

Use of vaccinations to shorten isolation times also mooted as part of solution to Cabinet rift

People arriving for mandatory quarantine at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Santry. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

People arriving for mandatory quarantine at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Santry. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

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Talks to defuse a Government row on mandatory quarantine will this week consider an expanded role for quarantining at home and how vaccinations might be used to reduce periods of isolation after travel from certain countries.

Senior Government sources said talks between officials would take place this week – most likely Tuesday or Wednesday – in an effort to find a compromise after moves to add several EU member states and the US to the list of countries eligible for mandatory hotel quarantine caused a serious political row last week.

The expansion of the list is aimed at minimising the risk of coronavirus “variants of concern” spreading from countries, some of which have strong travel links to the Republic.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly is understood to be committed to proceeding, notwithstanding opposition from other Government Ministers, most notably Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney.

“His view on this is not going to change,” said a well-placed source of Mr Donnelly’s stance. The leaking of the extended list of countries caused a significant row last week, viewed by some as an attempt to “bounce” the rest of Government into accepting its expansion.

There was significant diplomatic fallout arising from the leak, with one Government source saying it caused “consternation” in European capitals, while another said there was “real annoyance” over how the story had played out.

Sources said talks would focus on whether it would be possible to devise a “stronger quarantine-at-home system [and] a way that vaccines could be used to reduce the term [in quarantine]” for arrivals from some countries. The Department of Foreign Affairs is also likely to examine the legality of charging people arriving from other EU member states for hotel quarantine. The role of testing on arrival will also be examined.

Complex questions

The issue has raised complex questions for the Government. Linking vaccination to individual freedoms may be resisted by some European capitals, while hotel capacity, the criteria for inclusion of countries on the list, the review period for same, an “exit strategy” from the policy and the legal position regarding travel in the EU need to be addressed. Sources said countries that had put extensive hotel quarantine regimes in place had been forced to cap arrivals.

Government will also monitor the prospect of an early constitutional challenge to the quarantine system, arising from the case of two women who refused to enter mandatory hotel quarantine following their return from a trip to Dubai.

Government sources said on Sunday there will be consultation with Brussels as well, as fears grow in Europe over variants of concern, which are spreading in France and elsewhere.

Some in Government are concerned about the public health and political consequences of inaction. “It’s very dangerous for politicians to think they know more about the virus than medical experts and to effectively over-rule them,” observed a source.

Separately, the HSE has told hospitals they can provide surplus vaccines in exceptional circumstances to people who do not have conditions that could leave them at risk of severe illness or death as a result of Covid-19.

It told senior hospital staff in a letter last Wednesday that vaccination of anyone beyond group 7 – people aged 16-64 who had an underlying condition that puts them at high risk of severe outcomes – was not appropriate.

However, in exceptional circumstances and “as a last resort”, small amounts of vaccines could be administered to people outside the categories of those being medically vulnerable and at very high and high risk of severe illness or death.

It said “this should be done in a transparent, equitable and fair manner”.

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