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Justice Minister says mandatory hotel quarantine could return over new Covid-19 variant

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has said a decision on stopping flights from southern Africa should be made later today.

Image: Alamy Stock Photo

THE MINISTER FOR Justice has said that mandatory hotel quarantine could be reintroduced in Ireland following the announcement of a new Covid-19 variant in South Africa. 

Speaking on Newstalk Breakfast, Helen McEntee said that while we’re still learning about the new variant, “the early indications would show that this is potentially more transmissible and potentially more able to evade the vaccination”.

“If we need to move quickly here – be it with the introduction of hotel quarantine – then I think that’s something we need to do,” she said. 

“When something like this happens, we’ve seen how quickly variants travel and move – and the implications that has had. We’ve learned from this pandemic as time has gone on.”

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe also said that he believes “we will need to make changes” on Mandatory Hotel Quarantine, speaking this morning to RTÉ’s Claire Byrne.

He added that, if we do need it, “it will be of a different scope & scale to where we were the last time it was in place.”

This comes as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU wants to stop air travel from southern Africa to counter the spread of the new variant.

Following the announcement, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said on social media that a decision on stopping flights from the southern African region should be made later today. 

In a tweet, Coveney said that the Department of Foreign Affairs was consulting with the Department of Health, the Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan and the European Commission on the issue. 

He added that it was “important to move quickly on this, coordination across EU is important to be effective.”

HSE chief Paul Reid told Morning Ireland that the variant is “an obvious cause for concern”. 

“There’s no cases identified yet in the UK or in the EU as we understand it, but certainly in South Africa, I think there was about 59 case identified yesterday, and in one province in particular, where the positivity rate went from about 1% to 30% in about three weeks,” he said.

Reid also said that the World Health Organisation (WHO) were meeting with South African authorities today and added that the HSE and the Department of Health will be monitoring the variant.

It comes after the Minister for Health said he is “deeply concerned” by the announcement of the new variant.

South Africa officially announced yesterday that they have detected a new Covid-19 strain that scientists fear could torpedo efforts to beat the pandemic.

No cases have been identified to date in Europe, but Stephen Donnelly is concerned about its emergence.

In a statement, the Department of Health said that it has, “in recent days, been monitoring the emergence of a new variant (B.1.1.529), of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. This variant has been identified in a number of countries in southern Africa and in Hong Kong”.

“The Department is aware of measures taken by the Government of the United Kingdom including the suspension of flights from a number of African countries,” it said.

“No cases of this variant have been reported in Europe to date, but the Minister for Health is deeply concerned.

“The Department has been in contact with colleagues in Northern Ireland and we will continue to liaise with UK authorities.

“The Department’s advice to the Minister will continue to be informed by relevant guidance emanating from the ECDC and the WHO.”

Scientists are now working to understand the impact of the new, heavily mutated strain, feared to be more infectious than Delta that brought the world back to its knees a year after the virus first surfaced in central China.

“This is the most significant variant we have encountered to date and urgent research is underway to learn more about its transmissibility, severity and vaccine-susceptibility,” Britain’s health agency chief Jennie Harries said in a statement.

The WHO’s Dr Mike Ryan has said that the threat or risk of the variation has not yet been fully assessed.

“This happens, viruses evolve… This is not the end of the world,” Ryan said. 

He added, “the sky is not falling in. There’s this idea that we’re just waiting for the next variant and I don’t want people to spend their lives worrying about that every day.”

Ahead of yesterday’s announcement by scientists in South Africa, countries across Europe were already accelerating booster campaigns, enforcing stricter curbs and targeting the unvaccinated as cases multiplied to record levels.

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The WHO said it is “closely monitoring” the reported variant and is expected to determine if it should be designated a variant of “interest” or of “concern”.

Scientists have said the new B.1.1.529 variant has at least 10 mutations, compared to two for Delta or three for Beta.

“The concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19, said at a virtual press briefing.

South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla described the strain as “a major threat”.

The finding has left British scientists “deeply concerned”, Health Minister Sajid Javid said, because it could render current vaccines less effective.

In the first international move to protect against its spread, Britain said it would ban travel from six southern African countries.

- Contains reporting from © AFP 2021 and additional reporting by Zuzia Whelan 

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Lauren Boland

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