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TAOISEACH MICHEÁL MARTIN has confirmed an extension of Level 5 restrictions until 5 March.  

It’s also been confirmed that all arrivals into Ireland, except for certain exceptions, will face mandatory quarantine either at home or in a hotel. 

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said that “in most cases” this will be at home. 

  • Arrivals from South Africa, Brazil or those without PCR test to face mandatory quarantine in a hotel
  • Arriving without a PCR test will also mean €2,500 fine or six months imprisonment
  • Extra gardaí at ports and airports

Good morning, Rónán Duffy here to guide you through all the developments on another significant day in this country’s response to Covid-19.

Eleven months ago the debate was around an Ireland-Italy Six Nations match and the difficulty in stopping people arriving from abroad, so much has changed in the interim but now we may actually see people being held in hotels.

There’s also the small matter of a million school students who are still trying to learn from home and what the next couple of months will look like for them.

One of the things that’s changed in those long eleven months is the development of the government’s new Covid-19 Sub-Committee, which is chaired by the Taoiseach. 

It means that any of the big decision are usually taken before a full meeting of Cabinet where they effectively get the final sign-off.

It’s possible that Cabinet may tweak some of the plans from the sub-committee yesterday but it’s also unlikely. 

Our political correspondent Christina Finn has a good summary here of what was agreed yesterday: 

  • Restrictions to remain in place until 5 March
  • Mandatory quarantine for all arrivals from South Africa and Brazil at a hotel
  • The same for those without a negative PCR test
  • Increased checks at ports and airports

After the Cabinet sub-committee meeting, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar went on RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live and laid out the thinking behind the government’s decision.

Varadkar has previously voiced his concerns about the feasibility of mandatory hotel quarantine for all arrivals and said last night that if it was introduced it would probably be in place “for at least a year” because “it’s hard to reverse”.

The move towards mandatory quarantining among a number of nations, including Ireland and the UK, comes amid increasing concern about the spread of new variants of Covid-19. 

The variant that was first identified in the UK is on its way to becoming in the dominant strain here and has been seen to be particularly infectious. 

Opposition parties, such as People Before Profit and the Social Democrats, have long been arguing for a so-called ‘zero Covid’ approach, which uses lockdowns to drive Covid-19 to very low levels and then use quarantine to keep it from re-entering the country. 

The government has frequently dismissed this as unworkable in the Irish context given the county’s connectivity with other EU member states and the porous Northern Ireland border. 

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has also pointed out that NPHET has never argued for such an approach. 

The idea of mandatory hotel quarantine has been long recommended by NPHET, however. As far back as last July Deputy CMO Dr Ronan Glynn said it would be “desirable”

PastedImage-20052 Source: Rollingnews.ie

Speaking of the opposition, the parties have been out of the plinth this morning on this very issue. 

People Before Profit will this week table a Dáil motion calling on the government to adopt a “zero-Covid policy for the elimination of community transmission”. 

Party TD Richard-Boyd Barrett said that the government’s Living with Covid-19 strategy has “failed spectacularly:

Trying to live alongside Covid is like trying to play footsie with a tiger, it just does not work. We need to end the ad hoc, piecemeal, reactive approach to dealing with Covid-19 because it has failed us and instead pursue a comprehensive alternative Zero-Covid strategy that seeks to eliminate community transmission, and then allow us to get past this terrible cycle of surge and lockdown. 

Labour has moved into this area too but has declined to use the term ‘Zero Covid’, with party leader Alan Kelly TD saying over the weekend that he prefers the term “aggressive suppression”. 

The party’s Louth TD Ged Nash also used that terminology today and, and as a border TD, spoke about what he felt is needed in those counties. 

PastedImage-25044 Labour TD Ged Nash Source: Rollingnews.ie

Nash said restrictions need to be introduced that can be applied on people from Northern Ireland who are non-resident in the Republic: 

If you live in Belfast, you can travel to Baltray in Co Louth or Belmullet in Co Mayo with impunity once you’ve crossed the border. But if you’re living in Louth you can’t travel from north of the country to the south, without being asked by a member of An Garda Síochána to turn back to where you came from. 

PastedImage-37619 Source: Youtube/SkyNews

Meanwhile, across the water in the UK, Home Secretary Priti Patel says that the government  “will not hesitate to take further action” to prevent new strains entering the country. 

Patel won’t go into details on the new plans being discussed but said:

From January 2020 the government has had a comprehensive strategy for public health measures at the border. To date, Border Force has checked an estimated 3.7 million passenger locater forms, issued over 2,300 fixed penalty notices and referred over 22,000 cases to the police.

It is expected that an announcement on the quarantine plans would be made later today and will include passengers arriving into England being made to stay in quarantine hotels. 

Despite reports suggesting it could take up to three weeks to implement the policy – partly due to the logistical challenge of arranging accommodation for thousands of arrivals – the head of a hotel chain Best Western Great Britain said they could mobilise “within 24 to 48 hours”.

Just to finish off the tales from the plinth this morning, this is Sinn Fein’s Darren O’Rourke TD outlining his party’s position: 

We believe a mandatory quarantine regime is needed and we also believe that mandatory testing pre-arrival and post-arrival is required. And it’s not only us, NPHET have indicated that these are the type of measures that are required, as have other political opposition parties and the community. The public at large I believe want to see this type of regime and the government’s measures don’t go nearly far enough. 

The Cabinet meeting is ongoing by the way, here is what Taoiseach Micheál Martin said on his way into Government Buildings today. 

He said if, as expected, mandatory quarantine is introduced it can come on board “very quickly”. 

Travel is coming down very significantly it’s down to quite low levels now in the last weekend. The majority would appear to be Irish people who went on holidays abroad during the Christmas period and we need to clamp down on that. I mean that is in itself a violation of Level 5 regulations that we have in place. So I think overall the combination of measures and the cumulative impact of all of the measures that we’ll take today will have a significant impact on the remaining level of travel that is ongoing.

The Taoiseach also mentioned healthcare workers who have been dealing with the high level of Covid-19 patients in hospitals this month, saying they have been “heroic”. 

“Those working on the frontline have been truly heroic in the last month, of that there is no doubt. But the hospital numbers are too high and the number of people in intensive care is too high, and even at the end of February they’ll still be too high in my view. And that’s why we’re extending and continuing the restrictions,” he said. 

But while the Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Green Party government is on the verge of introducing mandatory hotel quarantine for people from “high risk” areas, some party backbenchers are asking that they go further. 

Cork South West TD Christopher O’Sullivan is calling on government to adopt the same measures that are in place in New Zealand and Australia, where all arrivals are quarantined in hotels. 

“Increasingly we’re seeing images and video of people in New Zealand enjoying concerts, social gatherings and experiencing a fair degree of normality,” O’Sullivan said.

“My sister moved back to New Zealand in September with her family. While they had to do 14 days in a hotel, it was a small price to pay for the freedom they now experience.”

new-zealand-wellington-new-cabinet New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Source: PA Images

The Fianna Fáil TD’s mention of New Zealand is timely too, with the country’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern saying that the country’s borders are likely to be closed for most of this year

Ardern said the emergence over the weekend of New Zealand’s first case of community transmission in more than two months showed the danger Covid-19 still posed to a nation hailed for its response to the coronavirus.

She said her government would not re-open its borders – which have been effectively closed to all but returning citizens since last March – while the pandemic was still raging worldwide.

“Given the risks in the world around us and the uncertainty of the global rollout of a vaccine, we can expect our borders to be impacted for much of this year,” she told reporters.

Just to catch you up to speed with another hugely significant story that’s developing today

AstraZeneca is already in the sights of the European Commission after it was revealed that it could miss its contracted deliveries of the vaccine to EU countries by as much as 60% in the first quarter of this year. 

Now, the company has rubbished a news report quoting unnamed government sources in Germany that claimed the its Covid-19 vaccine showed little efficacy for people above 65.

The German government has also rubbished the claims, which appear to be based on a reporter’s error, but there remains concern about the approval of the vaccine in the EU. 

The EMA is set to decide on the use of the vaccine this week and a separate German newspaper is reporting that the vaccine may not be approved for people aged over 65. 

And while we’re on the topic of vaccines, Director General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has recently sought to remind countries that a ‘me-first’ attitude to obtaining supplies of vaccines will only prolong the pandemic.

Yesterday he said “vaccine nationalism” may serve short-term political goals, but it is in everyone’s long-term economic interest to support vaccine equity.

“Until we end the pandemic everywhere, we won’t end it anywhere,” he said.

This week talks are continuing between the Department of Education and teachers’ unions about a safe re-opening of schools.

The Taoiseach said over the weekend that it is unlikely all students will be physically back in school buildings by St Patrick’s Day 

Last night Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn said the level of disease in the country is still too high to allow for the mobility of over a million people that would be associated with a full re-opening of education.

Special education will be the priority in talks over this week, with a focus after that on primary schools and students due to sit State exams this year.

Some Cabinet news from our political correspondent Christina Finn:

“Cabinet has agreed to extend restrictions until 5 March, with arrivals from Brazil, South Africa and those without negative test to be held for 14 days in mandatory quarantine.

Those returning to the Republic through Northern Ireland will also be legally required to adhere to the rules here.

“It is believed that fines of €100 for going over 5km limit will be increased if you’re in breach of the 5km rules and found to be intending to travel abroad for a non-essential reason.”

shutterstock_1146564245 Limerick City Source: Shutterstock

It’s not just Covid-19 restrictions that are being discussed at Cabinet today, those of you living in the Republic of Ireland’s third-largest city may have a directly elected mayor by the end of this year. 

It comes as the Cabinet approved the drafting of legislation for the role of a directly elected mayor for Limerick City and County. 

The electorate of Waterford, Limerick and Cork city went to the polls in 2019 to decide whether or not they wanted to have a directly-elected mayor but only Limerick voted in favour.

Minister of State Peter Burke today confirmed that the legislation required to enable the first election for a directly elected mayor will be advanced as quickly as possible, with the aim of an election taking place before the end of this year.

As the role is due to come into existence in the middle of the local government electoral cycle, the first mayoral term will run until the local elections in 2029.

We’re not expecting any surprises, but the Taoiseach should be up now in a few minutes. 

Another noteworthy change that’s been agreed by Cabinet is that what is currently advisory in terms of restricting movement will now becomes stricter. 

As of now, people arriving to Ireland require a PCR test before they arrive but are also asked to restrict their movements for 14 days when they get here, this restriction can end after five days with another negative PCR test.

Previously, this measure was only advice but it will now become a legal requirement to self-isolate. 

This is separate from those who don’t have a negative PCR test or those arriving from Brazil or South Africa who face mandatory quarantine in a hotel.

Micheál Martin has begun speaking:

I understand the appeal of the idea that there’s a simple answer to the pandemic in our country. That we just pull up the drawbridge and we’d be back to normal in no time.  The truth is that there is no easy way through this pandemic or out of it. The number of travellers coming into our country has absolutely collapsed. And we’ve taken a number of decisions today designed to further suppress that number.

Here it is on the mandatory quarantine: 

Mandatory quarantine at designated facilities will be required for persons who arrived from Brazil and South Africa. 

In other cases, passengers will be required by law to quarantine at home.

These regulations will apply to anyone who travels into Ireland from any port or airport on the island, including ports and airports in Northern Ireland.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar says mandatory quarantine is effectively in place for all arrivals exception some exceptions but that this quarantine might be in hotels or at home:

We also made some significant policy changes in relation to foreign travel. With some exceptions, anyone entering the State from overseas will be subject to mandatory quarantine. In some cases that will be mandatory quarantine in a hotel. In most cases mandatory quarantine at home. It will be mandatory not advisory for the first time. 

PastedImage-49991 Source: RTÉ

If people arrive here without a negative PCR test, not only will they have to got to a facility to quarantine, but they will also face either a fine of €2,500 or imprisonment of six months. 

The Taoiseach also confirms that there are “early stage” discussions about a “two island strategy” with UK counterparts. 

Taoiseach: 

Sometimes people put forward the idea that we can seal the border, we can’t, one cannot seal the border…. Anyone who lives along the border will tell you this, it’s not as simple as putting a kind of seal on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, it’s seamless interaction.

Our political correspondent Christina Finn has been seeking clarification on the mandatory quarantine requirement from Transport Minister Éamon Ryan. 

Ryan confirms that as per the traffic light system, people can end their quarantine after five days if they receive a negative PCR test.

This does not apply with people arriving from high risk areas such as Brazil and South Africa. 

PastedImage-15872 Source: Julien Behal

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar says the talk of ‘zero-Covid’ as being a potential solution is ‘frustrating’: 

I think that’s part of what I know and government find it a bit frustrating about the Zero-Covid’ promise, that if only did this one thing in three months we’ll be living like New Zealand. That’s not the case that’s a false promise really.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin expressing caution around the impact vaccines will have long-term:

NPHET are very cautious about the impact of the vaccine on society. Their view of the vaccine is that they know the evidence is there that protects against mortality and serious illness but it’s they’re not able to see yet that it stops the virus being transmitted to somebody else. So they are very very cautious about all of that.

And on that rather glum note we’ll end this afternoon’s liveblog. We’ll publish a summary of today’s changes in the next while and I’ll link to it here. 

Thanks for joining us! 

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Rónán Duffy

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