Zero Covid plan would mean 2km limit and closing all schools - Donnelly

Minister cites ‘whiff of xenophobia’ in debate on mandatory hotel quarantining

 Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly: ‘I’ve heard people say we must protect “our people from foreign people”. That’s not what this is about.’ Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins Photos Dublin

Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly: ‘I’ve heard people say we must protect “our people from foreign people”. That’s not what this is about.’ Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins Photos Dublin

 

Current lockdown restrictions would remain in place beyond September with schools closed and the 5km travel limit reduced to 2km if the State pursued a zero Covid strategy, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has told the Seanad.

“It’s just not possible,” he said during debate on his legislation to introduce a 14-day mandatory hotel quarantining.

None of the Opposition’s amendments aimed at zero or maximum Covid suppression were accepted including those to extend the measures to travellers entering the State from all countries.

The Seanad passed the Health (Amendment) Bill to introduce mandatory hotel isolation measures which will apply to 33 countries currently on the “category 2” list from where the risk of transmission of Covid-19 or mutations of the diseases is high.

The Bill goes to the President for consideration and signature but no date has yet been given for implementation of the legislation, if signed.

Insisting that the measures in the Bill are proportionate, the Minister also said that people’s close contacts had increased again from two to 2.6 and while the reproduction rate at which coronavirus replicates was close to one “it’s still close to one”.

Introducing the legislation Mr Donnelly, criticised “the whiff of xenophobia” in parts of the Dáil debate last week on the legislation.

“I’ve heard people say we must protect ‘our people from foreign people’. That’s not what this is about.”

But Independent Senator Alice Mary Higgins said “we have to be sure that there is no element of favouritism or xenophobia in which countries are designated or not designated”.

She warned against “introducing countries we don’t mind offending, because it looks like that at the moment”.

The legislation, which already been passed in the Dáil also increases fixed notice penalties for non-essential travel from €500 to €2,000. Breaches of mandatory hotel quarantining include penalties of up to €4,000 and or a one month prison sentence for a first offence.

Mr Donnelly said “the measures provided for in the Bill will be applicable to all travellers from a designated state and a person’s nationality has no bearing on the matter”.

He said “we are moving away from describing these variants as the Brazilian variant or the South African variant. We’re moving towards calling them by their names, such as B117”.

The Oireachtas had an important role to ensure that people understood the measures “are not a reaction to foreigners” as the history of xenophobia and racism was “linked to the perceived fear of importation of disease”.

But Ms Higgins said that “when we hear of xenophobia it feels very strange to look at the list and see that it’s nearly entirely countries of the global south when for example we know that the United States has all of those variants and indeed new variants, B1427 and B1429”.

Opposition parties re-introduced amendments refused in the Dáil to apply the quarantine to travellers from all countries. Ms Higgins said she was introducing a “more moderate amendment to ensure that there is at least consistency in the application of these criteria”.

Labour Senator Ivana Bacik who introduced her party’s amendment to extend the quarantine to all countries, said “the balance is currently skewed in favour of non-essential international travel to and from Ireland and against travel outside our 5 km zones and against the re-opening of our schools and work places”.

Ireland’s lockdown measures were among the most restrictive in the EU she said, adding that “we’re somehow so inured and institutionalised to the restrictions we’re living under that we see the restrictions on international travel as draconian and breaching civil liberties”.

“Normal civil liberties’ protections are clearly being undermined and to impose tighter restrictions on international travel strikes a much more proportionate balance.”

Fianna Fáil Senator Lorraine Clifford Lee welcomed the three months’ sunset clause on the Bill after which it will have to come back to the Dáil and Seanad to be extended.

Sinn Féin Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile said gardaí “have had no operational guidance or instruction on how to implement the quarantining and this is unacceptable”.

He said that “considering the number of people in general entering the State the gardaí will have to be involved”.

Independent Senator Gerard Craughwell said there should be border checks “to ensure the same restrictions apply on the Border” if the same restrictions are not in place in the North’s ports and airports.

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