Politics

Mandatory hotel quarantine may be needed again for ‘a limited time’, Donnelly says

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has said travel restrictions introduced to curb the spread of Covid-19 “may not be enough” and that he expects to see more cases of the Omicron variant in the State.

He said coronavirus has “served up something nobody wanted to see” with the emergence of the new variant and that hotel quarantine may be necessary for “a limited time” to protect public health and control transmission of the virus.

The Minister was speaking during a debate in the Dáil on Thursday on the Health Amendment (No 3) Bill 2021, which would allow the Government to reinstate mandatory hotel quarantine for people arriving from countries deemed to be high risk. The motion passed through the second stage of the Dáil.

Mr Donnelly said “we know that the system of hotel mandatory quarantine previously in place worked”, with 593 residents testing positive for the virus and a total of 17,846 tests completed.

“This data of course does not take account of cases which were avoided in the community as a result of hotel quarantine, or of the travellers who delayed travel to Ireland as a result of the imposition of quarantine,” he added.

The Minister said the legislation strikes a fair and proportionate balance between “the protection of public health and the common good in the situation we face, on the one hand, and the limited restriction of individual rights, on the other”.

He added: “It is of note that the UK introduced hotel quarantine very quickly in response to the emergence, and potential risk, of the new variant. The Irish Government has decided at this point to reintroduce the legal basis for hotel quarantine, should it be deemed necessary in response to the threat posed by Omicron variant.”

Drugs in pipeline

Mr Donnelly said measures such as mandatory hotel quarantine, “give us time to further increase vaccination rates, including boosters, and deploy promising antiviral drugs that are in the pipeline”.

He said exemptions for people who have left Ireland recently and are hoping to return in the coming weeks “could be looked at”.

“Certainly the view last time was that would not be appropriate because they’re there, they have incurred the risk that we’re trying to manage,” he said.

Fine Gael TD Michael Creed said he “wasn’t convinced” that mandatory hotel quarantine was “a proportionate response” to the variant.

“I anticipate that in the coming weeks…given the season that it is there will be large numbers of people who have planned their return home for Christmas who will be confronted with the reality at transit airports as they seek to return from far away places that they will fail PCR or antigen tests,” the Cork North West TD said.

“The floor of this chamber will be dominated by deputies representing their constituents who are saying their constituent is now in Heathrow, Amsterdam, Frankfurt…wherever and they haven’t a clear test and they have by regulation and by decision of this Government been forced to stay out of this country for Christmas.

“I think that’s something that’s undesirable and I’m not convinced that this is a proportionate response.”

State detention

Independent TD Catherine Connolly said she was probably one of few deputies who would not be voting for the Bill, adding that mandatory hotel quarantine “undoubtedly amounts to a form of State detention”.

Ms Connolly said she had no analysis from the Department of Health in relation to mandatory hotel quarantine to date. She said the legislation was published on Tuesday, and that it will be “guillotined today and passed through even though there’s no emergency today”.

Labour TD Duncan Smith said the party would support the Bill but that he had huge concerns if it could be applied in current circumstances as the virus is “running absolutely rampant around our country at the moment”.

“If you haven’t had it, we all know many people now who have it or had it. There is no feeling that there is a national suppression strategy that’s working,” he said.

Sinn Féin’s health spokesman David Cullinane said there needs to be “proper oversight and accountability and transparency” when decisions around restrictions are being made.

Mr Cullinane said while additional public health measures were needed in relation to travel, “we always have to be careful and balance out the measures which we bring in and the impact that it would have on citizens”.

Obliged

Under the legislation, travellers who have been in a “designated state” within the 14 days prior to their arrival in Ireland will be obliged to undergo a two week period of quarantine.

The Bill includes a provision to allow exit from quarantine before the completion of 14 days if travellers return a ‘not-detected’ Covid-19 test upon arrival and a further such test on day 10 of quarantine.

There are a limited number of other circumstances under which travellers may leave quarantine, such as for medical treatment or “other humanitarian reasons”.

The Bill also sets out that a public health doctor can permit a traveller in hotel quarantine who has tested positive for Covid 19 to be released after the initial 10-day period if they believes the person does not pose a risk of infection.


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