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Explainer: Why is mandatory quarantine being debated again and what are other countries doing?

A mandatory 14-day quarantine is in place in Australia and other countries for people travelling from abroad.

Image: Shutterstock/Beliphotos

Updated Jan 22nd 2021, 7:33 PM

BRINGING IN A SYSTEM of mandatory quarantine for people arriving into Ireland from abroad is being debated once again.

The idea has been considered a number of times throughout the pandemic, with public health officials in favour of it and the government citing a number of obstacles. 

Countries like Australia and Thailand have mandatory quarantines in place for most people arriving in from abroad.

The Taoiseach said earlier today the possibility of such a system is being examined by the government. 

So why is it being discussed in Ireland again?

What is mandatory quarantine?

This is a 14-day period of isolation undertaken in place to prevent people arriving in from abroad potentially spreading Covid-19. 

It usually involves a person spending two weeks isolated in a hotel room.

At the moment in Ireland, the public health guideline for a person to restrict their movements after arriving into the country is not a mandatory requirement.

As of last week, people travelling into Ireland from other countries require a negative PCR test taken 72 hours before arriving into the country. 

Anyone who travels without a prior test result could be subject to a fine, or detention.

We’ve talked about mandatory quarantine before, right?

Yes. The National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) has always advocated for mandatory quarantine, something that was reiterated today at a meeting of the Oireachtas Health Committee. 

“NPHET is in favour of avoiding all non-essential travel in the first instance, that’s the most important measure. And beyond that, our advice is there, it’s published, we’ve preciously asked for mandatory quarantine and recently we asked for any element of discretion as it applies to travel to be removed insofar as is possible,” the deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn said. 

“But we’re not the experts on what’s possible. What we want is a situation is where non-essential travel is reduced to the greatest extend possible through whatever means are required.”

The issue of mandatory quarantine was a flashpoint around the Cabinet table of the previous Fine Gael caretaker government last year, with a number of ministers stating that it would be a “step too far” for Ireland to go down that route.

Is mandatory quarantine in place in other countries? 

Yes. In Australia, all international travellers are required to quarantine for 14 days at the first point of entry at centres in state-designated facilities. These are often hotels.

The fees for this quarantine can cost up to $3,000 (€1,900) for one adult. Payment is only in place in some states and territories. 

Thailand is another country in which a mandatory 14-day quarantine is in place for travellers from abroad.

The Australian government requires anyone who has returned to Australia from overseas to enter 14 days of quarantine. 

Some people in certain essential jobs like government travel and foreign diplomats are exempt from the 14-day quarantine. There are also exceptions on compassionate or medical grounds that are considered on a case-by-case basis. 

After a plane lands in Australia, travellers receive a health screening including a temperature check.

Then, arranged transport brings people to their quarantine facility.

People are generally tested for Covid-19 in the first 48 hours after they arrive, and then again between 10 to 12 days into their quarantine. 

What has the government said about it in the past? 

Back in July, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said mandatory quarantine was “not workable” in Ireland. He said the country did not have a sufficient number of hotels or security staff to make quarantine legally mandatory.

He told at the time that it was the view of the previous government that mandatory quarantine would “not be workable” and nothing had changed with the new government.

“Other countries have tried to roll it out and failed,” he said, pointing out that the New Zealand Health Minister had to resign.

David Clark resigned in July after a series of blunders including when he appeared to place the blame for allowing some returning travelers to leave quarantine without being tested on the director-general of health.

When the issue was raised again in November, Varadkar said: “We are an island country but we are not an island state. We share a land border with Northern Ireland that is wide open.

There is a relatively liberal regime in Northern Ireland for international travel. There are no restrictions on travel to Britain and a very extensive green list, much more extensive than ours.

“We do not detect an appetite from the Northern Ireland Executive to change that. We need to be very realistic about that. We could have very strict rules at our airports but they could be made a mockery of by virtue of the fact that we have open travel with Northern Ireland, which obviously we are not going to restrict.”

What did the Tánaiste say this week?

Varadkar said in the Dáil yesterday that the big flaw for Ireland in imposing 14-day mandatory quarantine with hotel detention for people arriving in our ports and airports is that it would be largely ineffective because we could not do so on the land border with Northern Ireland.

“Without stating the obvious, countries that have done this successfully are island states — we are an island geographically but not an island state — or countries such as South Korea, whose border with North Korea is of a very different type than ours with Northern Ireland,” he said.

“People have to have had a PCR test within 72 hours of arriving in the country and they have to produce evidence of it. There is a very high degree of compliance when it comes to that. It is working very well.

“I know it is not 100% in terms of stopping the virus coming into the country but it is working very well and it is mandatory. There are fines and files have been sent by the Garda to the DPP for people who have arrived without evidence of a negative test,” he said.

He said the number of people travelling in and out of the country now is very low.

“It is down to about 33,000 people a week, but that is people who are travelling for essential reasons,” he said.

Quarantining that many people for 14 days in a hotel with closed windows would be 66,000 people.

“These are people who generally are involved in essential travel, for example, people coming back for a funeral or maybe seeing a dying relative, a supply chain worker or a crucial worker who has come to fix a machine in a hospital.

“This is essential travel and we need to make sure we do not cut off essential travel entirely because sometimes it is necessary,” he added.

There are also legal issues to be aware of, he said. 

“In terms of anything we might do in the future, we need to bear in mind three things: our citizens’ rights – our EU rights as EU citizens; proportionality; and the situation with regard to Northern Ireland. First, on proportionality, at the moment if somebody tests positive for Covid in Ireland, we do not detain them.

“We do not put them in a hotel with security guards. If we were to take people who have come in from overseas – Irish people returning home; citizens coming back from overseas who have a negative test for Covid – and detain them in a hotel for 14 days, that would be disproportionate because there are lots of people in Ireland who we know have tested positive for Covid and we do not seek to detain them.

“Unfortunately, some of them do not self-isolate when they are supposed to. We would have to consider the proportionality of it,” he said.

The next issue is citizens’ rights, he said.

“We are EU citizens, there is freedom of movement and we have the right to travel, study and work anywhere in the European Union. That can only be constrained in very particular circumstances,” he said.

“Then there is the obvious issue of Northern Ireland. A zero Covid policy and a very strict 14-day border quarantine might make sense in a country that can control its borders. We cannot do so in the same way because of the open land border with Northern Ireland, which we do not want to close.

“If the UK, as has been suggested – although I understand that those suggestions are not advanced – were to bring in border quarantine, we might be able to do something on a two-island basis, but it is not going to work on a two-thirds-of-an-island basis,” he said.

What did the Taoiseach say today?

Despite Varadkar’s comments earlier this week, Taoiseach Micheál Martin today signalled that the government is considering the potential for the mandatory quarantine of passengers who do not have a negative PCR test.

Speaking to reporters this afternoon, Martin suggested that those who do not have such a document could be subject to mandatory quarantine. 

It’s also believed that the government is thought to be considering mandatory quarantine for certain areas deemed “high risk” due to the presence of new variants. 

Martin added there has been some “very exploratory” discussions between the Irish and British governments over the potential for a “two-island” approach to incoming flights.

“We are looking at restrictions on travel, further restrictions on travel. For example the prospect of suspending visa-free travel for some countries is under active consideration now. There’s a team of officials working up a range of proposals for that Cabinet Covid committee on Monday, ” the Taoiseach said.

We are, as Minister Eamon Ryan said this morning, in respect of those who come into the country without a negative PCR test, that quarantine would be provided for those. But we’re also looking at additional options.  

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“Obviously there are complications as there always has been because of our relationship with the United Kingdom, with the border, with the North, and also the fact that we’re integrated into the European economic system. I suppose, it’s more easy to call for a quarantine than to deliver it comprehensively. And a lot of people coming back are Irish people coming back into the country.”

What is government’s thinking behind-the-scenes?

There are differing views around the Cabinet table, but Varadkar’s view is the majority, in that it is not workable for everyone that arrives into Ireland to quarantine.

While it will be discussed by ministers, it is only being considered in the context of those that do not have a negative PCR test when they arrive in Ireland.

However, the Taoiseach’s comments today signal that discussions around the introduction of a mandatory quarantine may be gathering pace. 

It’s understood the measure is being considered for areas deemed to be of a ‘high risk’, like Brazil and South Africa. Any action would have to be led by the Department of An Taoiseach or Department of Transport in this regard, it’s understood. 

According to figures obtained by 1,074 people arrived into Dublin Airport yesterday – only one of whom did not have a PCR test. 

928 people arrived on Wednesday and eight of these did not have a PCR test in advance. 

EU leaders have agreed that to avoid closing off borders within the bloc, and testing needs to be stepped up.

From Sunday, anybody arriving from outside the EU – possible only those with essential reasons – could have to have a test for Covid-19 before departure, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said.

The Government here believes the threat of mandatory quarantine for those that arrive with no negative PCR test is merely a good deterrent – rather than something that is required.

One source said that those calling for mandatory quarantine for all arrivals are doing so largely due to to panic, and that it’s an over simplification of what such a system would involve.

The Rural Independent group of TDs yesterday called for an immediate implementation of mandatory quarantine for people travelling into the country. 

Sinn Féin TD Darren O’Rourke today reiterated the party’s support for a mandatory quarantine system. 

Writing in, RISE TD Paul Murphy called for a switch to a zero Covid strategy, including a ban on non-essential travel into the country and a mandatory quarantine for arrivals. 

With reporting from Sean Murray, Rónán Duffy

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Orla Dwyer and Christina Finn

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