Hotel quarantine system is an international embarrassment

It is the logical extension of over nine months of public policy failure in Ireland

Dublin Airport Crowne Plaza hotel, one of the mandatory hotel quarantine hotels. Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins

Dublin Airport Crowne Plaza hotel, one of the mandatory hotel quarantine hotels. Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins

 

Ireland is the only EU state to introduce a system of mandatory hotel quarantine for travellers from other EU members. Although dressed up as preventing the introduction of new variants of Covid into Ireland, it is, in reality, only the latest move in a muddled, unbalanced and embarrassing government response to the current pandemic.

The unprecedented diplomatic anger of Italy, Belgium, France and Luxembourg has now been complemented by the “concern” of the European Commission. The reality is that the Irish measures are likely incompatible with EU law and are the clearest sign yet of Dublin’s increasingly detached position in Brussels.

Let’s be clear. The hotel quarantine system isn’t about keeping Covid out of Ireland. Recent HSE data categorises 1.38 per cent of Covid cases as stemming from international travel compared to over 17 per cent arising from community transmission alone.

Even now, more badly impacted countries like Belgium lack the weird, unbalanced mix of mania and self-righteousness which has dominated the Covid debate in Dublin

What this ludicrous system is actually about is a political class desperate to protect themselves against domestic policy failures. And against all accusations of inaction.

International travellers and Irish people living abroad are just the easy prey.

In one way, the hotel quarantine fiasco – and make no mistake it is an embarrassment to our EU partners – is the logical extension of over nine months of public policy failure in Ireland.

Last summer, while case numbers were low continental European states allowed their populations to breathe as restrictions were loosened and vacations (some localised, some abroad) were allowed supported by mass testing. This wasn’t done out of gay abandon, or out of a failure to understand the risks. This was done to maintain public support for the inevitable tightening of restrictions which would occur during the autumn and winter months that followed.

Ireland, on the other hand, just followed the broken model introduced in Britain. Overlong closures of retail and hospitality. Mandatory, but unenforceable home quarantine with no real restrictions on arrivals from the US, Brazil or countless other Covid hotspots. It was a recipe for disaster.

This proved to be the case. Even now, more badly impacted countries like Belgium lack the weird, unbalanced mix of mania and self-righteousness which has dominated the Covid debate in Dublin.

In Ireland, however, a wound-up population (fed directly by catastrophic portents of doom from politicians) resulted in the hysteria of “golfgate” and the ebbing away of much public support.

The result was building pressure on the government and the disastrous decision to open the retail and hospitality industries simultaneously in the run up to Christmas. When it all went wrong, politicians continued to paint people returning to Ireland for Christmas as a reason for spreading another Covid wave.

It was terrible politics and even worse public policy.

In reality, the underlying cause was the lack of leadership. And Ireland’s inability to scale up a coherent and enforceable system for testing and tracking Covid cases.

All these failures are highlighted in the current hotel quarantine system. It’s beyond a parody.

Far from embracing the European mainstream and reinforcing our continental policy objectives post-Brexit, Irish public policy has followed the British example

Missing “inmates”, no exemption, then full exemption for vaccinated people, court challenges, people rushing to book flights from the US because of a delay in adding America to the quarantine list. And now a “pausing” of the entire system due to the lack of capacity.

Oh, and the whole system can be avoided by just travelling through Britain or Northern Ireland.

Overall, Ireland’s Covid response has lacked any sort of sustainable balance. We are either the “best” or “worst” in Europe for tackling the pandemic. Any semblance of trying to find a workable balance has long been blowing in the wind.

The contrast with many other smaller states in Europe is striking. Belgium has closed cafes, restaurants and bars since last autumn in a mostly successful attempt to keep schools and retail (both essential and non-essential) open. This stability has aided societal cohesion, reduced public anger and maintained a broad support for the Covid response.

For a country that sells itself as both a centre of global trade and an enthusiastic member of the EU, the pandemic response has provided a cruel reminder of the limitations of Ireland’s capabilities in times of real crisis.

Far from embracing the European mainstream and reinforcing our continental policy objectives post-Brexit, Irish public policy has, once again, followed the British example. But this time we can’t even copy Britain’s measures coherently. The great irony here is that for all the Brexiteer “rhetoric” about “taking back control” no EU member state currently appears on London’s list of states requiring mandatory hotel quarantine.

Once again, as with everything to do with Britain and Covid, Ireland has sidled into a terrible type of implied superiority. However, at least Westminster has maintained a much greater ability to analyse risk and protect business than Dublin could ever dream of.

For the EU, the hotel quarantine fiasco is just the latest example of Ireland’s increasingly isolated status in Brussels. To lack awareness of our responsibilities to our European partners is simply beyond belief.

Eoin Drea is a researcher at the Wilfried Martens Centre, the official think tank of the European People’s Party of which Fine Gael is a member

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