More than 650 additional beds have been secured for asylum seekers in direct provision centres to socially distance and self- isolate, the Department of Justice has said.
The rooms, which are located in hotels in Dublin, Cork and Galway, will be used to “provide valuable additional accommodation to support the measures required for vulnerable residents”, said a statement from the department on Tuesday evening.
They will also make available “offsite accommodation for self-isolation” and will help with social distancing measures by “reducing overall numbers in some existing centres”, it said.
The facilities will be used in addition to recently opened centres in Tullamore, Rosslare Harbour and Caherciveen, said the department.
Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan said "intensive work" was underway to protect the health and welfare of asylum seekers and refugees in direct provision and that his department would continue to do "everything possible to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all applicants".
Minister of State for Immigration David Stanton welcomed the provision of more beds and said the new measures would be implemented without delay.
“We know people are anxious,” he said. “This is a very worrying time for everyone and people who are in the State seeking international protection are no different. This is why the Department wrote to all residents, centre managers and staff members over the weekend to reassure them that their welfare is of paramount importance to us.”
The ministers also paid tribute to staff working in the centres for “protecting the welfare and safety of our residents”.
The Government announcement comes just hours after a public letter signed by more than 600 doctors, lawyers, public health officials, academics and migration experts warned the Irish health system would be unable to cope if cases of coronavirus become widespread in direct provision centres.
The group expressed concern that large numbers of asylum seekers were continuing to share bedrooms, sanitary and eating facilities and that an outbreak of the virus in a centre could “spread rapidly and create a cluster of cases” which local health systems in rural area would be unable to manage.
“In a pandemic, public health measures must apply to all; every person must be able to benefit from public health support, with the assistance of the State if necessary,” writes the letter.
If the Government fails to provide suitable accommodation for asylum seekers, people will die unnecessarily, it adds.
The group recommended that residents be re-housed in empty hotel rooms, student accommodation units and self-catering holiday accommodation, a call that was echoed in a separate letter sent by the Universities of Sanctuary Ireland group this week to university provosts and the Technological Higher Education Association.
It is understood residents in centres in Galway, Cork and Dublin have tested positive for the virus, also known as Covid-19. Meanwhile, a small number of asylum seekers continue to work as healthcare staff in nursing homes.
There are 5,686 people, including 1,739 children, living in 39 direct-provision centres around the country. There are an additional 1,585 people, including 285 children, staying in emergency accommodation.