An expansion that will cost millions or a necessity? Quarantine clashes end with 16 additions to hotel quarantine list

A week of difficult government discussions concluded with an incorporeal Cabinet meeting last night.

SENIOR GOVERNMENT MINISTERS loathe that the narrative of mandatory hotel quarantine in recent days has turned the discussion into “a Fianna Fáil versus Fine Gael thing”. 

While they may not like it, from the beginning of this MHQ (it even has its own acronym now) controversy, it very much was reported as a “Stephen Donnelly versus Simon Coveney” drama. 

But it is also one of the most significant butting of heads between the two parties since they entered their coalition government. 

It began last week when it was reported that 43 countries – including the US, France, Germany and other EU states – were recommended for inclusion on the list by public health officials.

A week of difficult government discussions concluded with an incorporeal Cabinet meeting last night which has resulted in the United States and a number of EU countries – including France, Belgium and Italy – being added to Ireland’s mandatory hotel quarantine list.

While Donnelly hit out against this “leak” last week, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney was reported to be privately “furious” about the proposals.

Although Department of Health personnel have argued correct procedure was followed, it is understood a perception by other departments that protocol wasn’t adhered to is a source of anger and annoyance. It appears, though, the leak to the media about the additions occurred before letters from the department were received by its counterparts.  

While criticisms were reported this week that this was a case of Coveney resisting public health advice, that’s not entirely fair.

There are legal, logistical and diplomatic issues at play here.

No matter what side of the MHQ fence you’re on, it is not just about a quick glance at case numbers in other countries and throwing their names on a red list. 

Critics of the system 

Some critics of the entire system as a whole also argue there is legitimate discussion about the necessity for mandatory quarantine at all, due to the vast majority of arrivals already having a negative test.

Some in Fine Gael in particular say the system was introduced as “window dressing” and was just pandering to the Opposition who felt international travel was an easy thing to point at.

Two former ministers, Regina Doherty and Charlie Flanagan, who sat around the Cabinet table where the issue of mandatory quarantine was first discussed as a ‘flashpoint’ issue in May 2020, have recently criticised the new regime.

Last night, Doherty tweeted that questions must now be asked about “what we are working towards” and when the travel restrictions for these countries will be lifted.

While these questions will no doubt be asked in the days and weeks ahead, the debate about the introduction of mandatory quarantine as a whole is over.

What we were left with this week was a departmental battle, one that Donnelly was determined to win.

Last night’s announcement that Bangladesh, Belgium, France, Italy, Kenya, Luxembourg, Pakistan, Turkey, the USA, Canada, Armenia, Bermuda, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Curaçao, Maldives, and Ukraine are to be added to the list is being described as a win for the health minister.

One source said this week there appeared to be an element of Fianna Fáil wanting to look tough on Covid, while trying to portray Fine Gael as not being tough enough.

(A Fianna Fáil source told the Irish Independent that “Coveney’s fall from the mountain he climbed up almost caused an earthquake.”)


Those that were skeptical of expanding the regime were pointing to some fair “compromises” last night.

Following the controversy surrounding the recommendations to expand the list by the Expert Advisory Group on Travel (EAGT), which is tasked with developing a method of risk assessing other countries, it is understood the group will be “augmented” to include other experts that will look at the “practical aspects” of adding countries to the list. 

No doubt this is to ensure that the Department of Foreign Affairs is not blindsided again.

Ensuring that a test on day five must be booked in advance, as well as the HSPC being called on, as a matter of urgency, to advise on exempting people that are vaccinated from hotel quarantine, is also viewed as a success. 

Donnelly hasn’t had many wins, to be fair, and even those opposed to the knee-jerk expansion of the list say they do sympathise with the health minister. 

However, those sympathies dissipated when the meetings held at senior officials level over the last day or two were described as shambolic. 

Practical questions

When the initial fallout happened ahead of last weekend, a number of practical questions were posed to the Department of Health about how an expanded system might work.

Coveney mentioned some of these publicly, as did Leo Varadkar. These centred around hotel capacity. Tifco, the hotel operator signed up for the mandatory hotel quarantine system has around 2,600 hotel rooms, of which around 650 are in use as of now. 

It is believed that under the new plan, hotel capacity will double to close to 1,200. 

However, there are still concerns that this number might not be enough. 

It was pointed out on radio this week by Coveney that there are around 20,000 Irish people living in France alone. Even if a fraction decide to come home to Ireland, where are we going to put them?

One source stated that Ireland’s hotel capacity for the system falls short of what is available in New Zealand, a country advocates for the regime point to regularly as the model Ireland should follow.

There are fears that in a couple of weeks, the headlines could be about the a three month waiting list to get into Ireland, with passengers getting around the system by travelling through London or Belfast and over the border. 

Costing millions 

The monetary factor here is one that is concerning to those in government circles, who said the expansion of the country list is going to be a “nightmare that will cost millions”.

The cost does not just relate to the staffing of the hotels with private security companies, but also in terms of the hotel stay bills. 

It was recently reported this week that the State has agreed to defer the cost of mandatory hotel quarantine for 21 passengers arriving into Ireland from countries that are currently included on the government’s restricted list.

That number is set to rise as more countries are added. 

One source stated that members of the Opposition who were clamouring to detain arrivals into Ireland will soon be outraged when it is revealed what the State will be forced to pay out on the system, at a time when the country’s borrowing is at an all-time high. Talks around the extension of business and social welfare supports begin in the summer months.

Other issues raised this week relate to European citizens’ rights, freedom of movement, as well as concerns raised by the Attorney General in a letter to the Department of Health which has been described as a “stinker”.

The AG’s letter posed concerns at how health officials formulated the advice, which was signed off on by the health minister and Acting Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn, and whether it was in line with current legislation. 

However, multiple sources say that when officials sat around together this week no detailed solutions to the questions were put forward.

A senior source said we shouldn’t have a portrayal of a situation of the Department of Health versus the Department of Foreign Affairs. 

Ultimately, it will be portrayed as one minister – Coveney – being “slapped down”, that it will be viewed as a climb down, they said, but added that the foreign affairs minister was totally in order to raise the issues of concern.

The crux of the talks 

The crux off the issue this week was the adding of countries to the list relates to the countries that have “variants of concern”. 

The ECDC proposed strengthening all health measures “including those relevant to travel” to respond to emerging variants of concern, which is the reasoning to back up our quarantine system.

The emergence of new variants was a factor when Austria was added to the list last month, but the criteria has since been changed by the government’s Expert Group on Travel to allow countries with high case numbers to be included.

It’s been acknowledged that not all countries carry out genome sequencing of Covid-19 cases, so data about the extent to which certain variants are circulating in each country is lacking.

While the expert group on travel has raised concerns about the ongoing risk presented by variants of concern, and variants of interest, it has also acknowledged the challenge posed by the limited availability of data relating to the locations and spread of these variants.

The Taoiseach denied earlier this week that the Attorney General had raised issues with the legislation underpinning mandatory hotel quarantine itself, but said concerns were raised because the legislation is grounded “in respect of variants of concern”.

The Fianna Fail leader added: “The public health advice has to be grounded within the legislative parameters, that’s the only issue.

“It’s not just in relation to countries with variance concerns, recommendations have been made to add countries.

“The other issues have to do with high incidence, and with levels two and a half times the Irish level.”

Public opinion

While Donnelly will appear to have won this battle in getting more countries added to the list, some sources question whether he will lose out overall.

Public opinion polls last week showed support for government has significantly fallen, peoples’ support for strict measures is wavering, with many TDs and senators telling their party leaders of late that they have “lost the dressing room”.

While Donnelly appears to have public support as regards hotel quarantine for now, will that support fade as vaccinations ramp up, as other countries reopen and as people begin to move around again?

The UK summer could be a bitter pill to swallow.

Irish eyes will be on the UK pubs and restaurants reopening ahead of us, and perhaps more importantly to this issue, pathways to international travel being unveiled.

We have had stories of families returning home being stuck in one room – although to not a huge amount of sympathy. We’ve had dramatic headlines of people who have absconded and of frivolous trips. 

With more countries added, other stories will emerge, perhaps ones that will pull on the heartstrings, like the son or daughter returning home after the death of a parent, having to quarantine and miss the funeral. 

Will the expansion operate smoothly or will it creak with the increased numbers?

As things move on, as vaccinations ramp up, as the BBC or Channel 4 TV channels report on the grand reopening of society across the water, as we look to our restrictions, our closures, our mandatory hotel quarantine system, will public mood change?

Those are just some forward questioning being posed by some sources.

Donnelly was not for moving this week, and it appears to have paid off for him, for now. 

But public opinion is a delicate thing. The health minister needs to be careful when he revels in winning the battle, when he might ultimately lose the war.

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