Cliff Taylor: It's looking like a staycation once again in 2021

Big debate on quarantine and controls ahead here as international rules tighten quickly

An almost empty arrivals hall in Terminal 2 at Dublin Airport last weekend. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

An almost empty arrivals hall in Terminal 2 at Dublin Airport last weekend. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar set off a fuss this week with his comment that mandatory quarantine of people entering the country would be “disproportionate” and in any case would not work because of the Border. The National Public Health Emergency Team has long pushed for tighter controls on those arriving into the country. Pictures of highly-paid tennis players locked into a hotel ahead of the Australian open for two weeks show that some places do this differently.

Travel controls are going to be stepped up here and across Europe in the coming weeks. The appearance of new variants, along with the virus numbers, has changed the politics. There was some support at a virtual meeting of EU leaders this week for stopping tourist travel between countries for a period – but this may well come down to member states to decide for themselves.

What should Ireland do? There is support for a tougher version of quarantine of incoming travellers. Many people are pointing out that they are confined within five kilometres of their homes and thus take issue with Varadkar’s “disproportionate” comment. It is a fair argument, though let’s not ignore either that we did a pretty good job of spreading the virus ourselves over Christmas. No doubt inward travel played a role too – notably in importing the UK variant– but this was due largely to people returning to their families.

Quarantining travellers coming into the country is not, on its own, going to solve this. But travel controls do have a role and what we have in place has been way too lax. We have had the passenger locator forms and regulations on how people should behave on arrival – but a lack of active monitoring, follow-up and enforcement of the rules. As is often the case when everyone clamours for new regulations, if the current rules were rigorously imposed it would have helped.

Quarantine

We do need to do more.The recent introduction of PCR tests on inward-bound travellers is a step forward, even if public-health experts point out that this can still miss cases. We heard this week that files had been sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions in relation to 80 people arriving without the PCR test – but wouldn’t it be better if the people involved were also sent to a quarantine facility, rather than being allowed to continue on their journey? It does seem that the Government may take this step.

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Other moves are being considered .The Taoiseach has said discussions are underway with the UK on a “two-island” approach, involving common rules to managing travel from some higher risk locations, for example. It might go some way to dealing with the Irish Border issue if joint UK/Irish moves can be agreed. Ireland will want to stay in line with EU moves, too.

But let’s not pretend that controlling the inward movement of the virus is straightforward or just a case of bringing a few people in buses to CityWest. We have thousands of essential workers, including hauliers , coming in and out of Ireland and the complication of the Border. That is no excuse not to control people arriving by air properly, but it does raise strategic issues.

Whatever mix of testing, travel controls, new visa requirements and quarantining emerges here, implementation is key. How people’s movements are controlled after arrival is central – international models vary from people being sent to hotels, to ensuring that they do stay at home if this is required. The Government is resisting full-scale mandatory quarantine of all arrivals. There is a discussion to be had here about exactly how we manage this – but other countries are quickly getting serious about this and we need to do the same.

But this is not just a short-term question for the next few months. Travel is going to be front and centre of the debate on how economies open up in the months – and possibly years – ahead. Assuming countries do get their numbers down, how open will they be to tourists from overseas, particularly with the new variants emerging?

There are some straws in the wind. Last December, much of the Spanish tourist industry said it would be “open for business” from March. But this week its prime minister said he did not see the country opening back fully to overseas visitors until 70 per cent of Spaniards were vaccinated – which would be late summer. Sri Lanka opened for tourism this week, but read the small print. It requires a PCR test before departure, another one on arrival at the hotel, a third one seven days later and a commitment to stay around designated tourist hotels.

Questions

We hope the vaccines will be the key to unlock the world of travel – and they may be. But the terms of engagement are not yet clear. While we know the vaccine will protect us from getting sick, we don’t yet know if it will stop us carrying and transmitting the virus, or whether it protects against new variants. For tourism, there could hardly be a more essential questions.

A number of EU countries – including Greece, Spain and Denmark – are floating the idea of vaccine passports.If vaccines do stop or sharply cut transmission this may be a way to start opening up travelling. Anyone for vaccine-only flights?

But even if we do succeed in getting numbers down, it is clearer by the day that the reopening of international tourist travel is going to be slow. It will lag the rest of the economy in terms of reopening and the outlook remains cloudy and uncertain. Under a zero-Covid strategy as put forward by some experts, tight border controls and quarantine would remain, quite possibly for a prolonged period. Whatever strategy the Government follows, it is difficult to see how it can encourage tourists to come visit us this summer and this has big implications for the tourism and travel sector.

If the vaccines work really well and the variant fears start to ease, this may well look better by the autumn. But another year of staycations looks likely for most of us – think Bundoran rather than Benidorm. And with Ireland’s economic model based in large part on the open nature of our economy, huge policy questions lie ahead.

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