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Mandatory quarantine unlikely and only to be considered if UK opted for similar system

Irish government favours asking people to restrict their movements.

Image: RollingNews.ie

MANDATORY QUARANTINE for passengers travelling into the country would only become a real possibility in Ireland if the UK opted into such a system, according to government sources.

At the moment, the public health guideline for a person to restrict his or her movements after arriving to Ireland is not mandatory. Neither is it mandatory for a person to restrict his or her movements if he or she is a close contact of a confirmed Covid case.

While there has been speculation that the government would introduce mandatory quarantine in recent days, it is understood that without the UK also doing so, it is a non-runner for Ireland, with one government source stating it would only be a real option if it was a “two-island strategy”.

There has been speculation, however, that the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson might be considering such a move after The Sunday Times reported that his ministers requested a study of New Zealand’s isolation policy (where visitors pay for the hotels in which they have quarantine out of their own pockets). 

Opposition parties have been out in force today calling for stricter restrictions and zero-Covid strategies. Many of the same arguments have been made throughout the pandemic, with politicians pointing to Australia and New Zealand as examples.  

While Government sources have said that ministers will discuss all aspects of travel regulations in light of concerns about new virus variants from the UK, South Africa and Brazil, many believe suggestions to emulate the approaches by Australia and News Zealand do not take account of complex legal issues around EU freedom of movement and the porous border with Northern Ireland.

Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane said his party is in favour of stricter travel restrictions, such as mandatory quarantine, as well as a robust testing and tracing system, which he says have never worked properly in Ireland. Meanwhile, People Before Profit members are advocating for a zero-Covid strategy. 

Comparisons

Australia has adopted some of the strictest measures in the world to combat coronavirus, with all international travellers required to quarantine for 14 days at the first point of entry at centres in state-designated facilities. The fees for such accommodation can cost up to $3,000 for one adult. 

Thailand is another example where 14 days quarantine at a State quarantine facility is mandatory. 

In a post-Cabinet briefing, the government press secretary confirmed that asking people to self isolate or restrict their movements was still the preferred approach. He added that the government maintains “this is the right way to go”.

Sustained scrutiny, however, means the three party leaders will continue to discuss the issues relating to travel restrictions and a U-turn in the UK could be swiftly copied here, one source conceded.

However, all indications from the UK government is that the matter is not under very serious consideration, they added.

Concerns

Those in government seem satisfied with the new rules imposed last week which require a negative PCR test taken 72 hours before arrival in Ireland and fear knock-on effects of tightening the regime. 

There are concerns that mandatory quarantine could have a serious impact on air freight and essential travel needs.

Those that are diagnosed with Covid-19 in Ireland are currently not put under mandatory quarantine, so questions have been raised by some ministers as to why those that have not necessarily been diagnosed should have to stay in a State-run facility.

Sinn Féin spokesperson on Transport, Darren O’Rourke said his party has repeatedly called for stricter protocols for those arriving into our ports and airports, but the government have adopted a “head-in-the-sand approach”.

“Testing post-arrival should be mandatory too. The same should be the case for our self-isolation/quarantine regime. Voluntary and unmonitored is not good enough. Mandatory hotel quarantine should be required for the relatively low numbers of international arrivals now, with only limited exceptions.

“This will prevent the rules being flouted and will act as a deterrent to non-essential travel into Ireland during this period when our health system is under extreme pressure,” he said.

This isn’t the first time the debate around mandatory quarantine has surfaced. In the last government, the issue of mandatory quarantine was a flashpoint around the Cabinet table, with a number of ministers saying it would be a “step too far” for Ireland to go down that route.

Government and NPHET have long differed on the issue of travel.

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Earlier in the pandemic, Holohan recommended that all arrivals into the country be quarantined for 14 days in separate isolation facilities once off the plane – something the government has ruled out from the beginning.

At the time, 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.

The Irish Council of Civil Liberties have also raised serious concerns about mandatory quarantine. In a letter to Health Minister Stephen Donnelly, the group encouraged the government to take into account the rights perspective.

“Whenever any restrictions on fundamental rights are imposed, human rights law requires that government must show that the restrictions are provided for by law, necessary in a democratic society and proportionate to a legitimate aim.

“During the summer of 2020, it was suggested on a number of occasions that blanket quarantine might be imposed on people coming into the country. It was the opinion of ICCL at that time that a blanket legal requirement to self-isolate would be a significant interference with the right to liberty and free movement and would not be a measure proportionate to the risk posed at that time,” the letter stated.

“We recognise that the situation we face as a nation in January 2021 is vastly different to that which we faced during the summer of 2020… there are new strains of the disease emanating from the UK, South Africa and Brazil.

“Given the current situation, we understand that some may consider mandatory quarantine for inbound passengers from specific countries posing a particular risk to public health as a proportionate measure to protect public health and life.

“If this is the Government’s position, we would emphasise that imposing mandatory quarantine on inbound travellers constitutes a significant interference with their right to liberty and imposes a high duty of care on the State over travellers who it proposes to detain,” the letter continues. 

The group called on the government to publicly explain why it considers “interference with the right to liberty is justified and proportionate at this time”. 

The government is to consider the current Level 5 lockdown restrictions at next week’s Cabinet meeting on Tuesday. 

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