Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said the Covid-19 mandatory hotel quarantine system should not be applied to countries where a large number of Irish people live.
The Minister has also raised strong doubts about the capacity of the mandatory hotel quarantine scheme to accommodate thousands of people in hotel rooms if an additional 43 countries are added to the list.
Mr Coveney also questioned the legal basis of adding so many new countries, especially EU countries, where there is a right to travel.
A major row has erupted within Government over plans by the Department of Health to extend mandatory hotel quarantine to 43 additional countries, including the United States, France and Germany.
The Attorney General wrote to Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly expressing concerns about the plans which have left other Ministers and the European Union "furious", senior sources confirmed.
“There are a lot of concerns about our capacity to (increase the number of countries) in the short term. We need to think through the implications of that,” said Mr Coveney in an interview with Highland Radio.
“It is one thing having a couple of hundred people in two or three hotels being managed by a contractor and the Defence Forces and working with the Garda Síochána and the Department of Health .
“It’s quite another thing having thousands of people in hotels which would have the implication of expanding this to lots of countries particularly EU countries where there are a lot of Irish people.”
In an interview which suggests strongly the Government will not include EU States in the Category 2 countries that are subject to mandatory hotel quarantine, he cited the fact that many Irish citizens lived in those countries.
“Take France for example There are 20,000 Irish people in France. Many come home from the summer, a lot are students
“Is it reasonable if those people have tested negative or have been vaccinated or recovered from Covid, is it reasonable to put them in a hotel if they have a home to go to where they could be quarantined?”
He said the State should not move ahead with including countries with a large number of Irish citizens.
“This is not primarily about non-Irish people coming here on holiday. This is primarily about Irish people coming home with a home to go to,” he said.
Thirty three countries are already on the Category 2 list, including Austria which had a cluster of the South African variant. Of the EU countries being considered, France in particular has a not insignificant number of the new Brazilian and South African variants, which have been estimated as comprising 5 percent to 6 percent of the overall number of new cases.
Attorney General’s letter
A source with knowledge of the Attorney General’s letter said it was “very clear” in expressing concerns that health officials had not followed the correct process or adhered to the legislation the Oireachtas passed on quarantine when formulating their advice.
There is concern in Government that the recommendation to add the countries has “over-reached” and has “misinterpreted the law we passed”, and that European treaty rights and human rights have not been fully considered.
The recommendation has raised a series of issues including around whether or not there is enough space in the existing hotels, what would be done about citizens who are ‘stranded’ and cannot afford quarantine and what would happen to essential workers.
There is also concern that the EU was not fully consulted and that the plans could represent a “major breach” of European citizens’ rights to travel freely. There are further fears about an impact on the Common Travel Area, given it has been proposed that the Isle of Man be included in the list of high-risk countries.
Government sources say they believe the plans were being progressed by health officials without asking for advice or feedback before making the recommendation.
However, sources in the Department of Health have pushed back against this idea and said that the consultation period is happening now, as would normally be the case after recommendations are made.
While there has been some speculation that Mr Donnelly could sign off on the plans without the full agreement of his Cabinet colleagues, this would be viewed as a “big political risk”.
Some in Government believe that if he did this, the new arrangements could be struck down in the courts.
Sources in the Department of Health maintain that officials were fully cognisant of the law and that there is provision in the legislation to add countries for reasons other than that they have concerning variants.