Health Minister Stephen Donnelly came out strongly in defence of Ireland's mandatory hotel quarantine system in the face of criticism from the European Commission and the Italian ambassador.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Prime Time after he announced changes to the system, including that fully vaccinated people would not have to quarantine, Mr Donnelly said: “What’s fundamental is that we protect the people living in this country from Covid and from variants and I make no apologies to the Commission, to the Italian ambassador or anybody else for putting in place the measures that we believe and our public health teams believe in.”
When asked if thinks the government should rejig the mandatory hotel quarantine system due to EU’s concerns and after the Italian ambassador to Ireland heavily criticised his country’s inclusion, he said: “The system is in place and the system is doing exactly what we need it to do.”
He added that “the Commission is perfectly entitled to believe what it wants” and that in his opinion and with his legal advice that the EU is wrong.
It came after he announced that fully vaccinated people will be exempt from mandatory hotel quarantine.
However, it is unclear exactly when this exemption will come into play, but that it will be “shortly”, according to a statement released by the Department of Health.
“The Government decision last week was for a rapid review to be conducted. I have now received advice from the Acting Chief Medical Officer, which I have accepted,” Minister Donnelly said in the statement.
“Legal regulations will now be required to exempt fully vaccinated people from Mandatory Hotel Quarantine and allow them complete home quarantine.
"These regulations will be drafted and signed in the coming days.”
The Health Minister also announced that the mandatory hotel quarantine booking portal will come back online from this Saturday, April 17.
On Wednesday, it was temporarily suspended as the government needed time to review capacity.
Minister Donnelly said hotels were encountering a “high level” of walk-ins of people who had not booked in advance of travelling to Ireland from designated countries and thus there wasn’t going to be enough rooms if capacity wasn’t increased.
He announced tonight that capacity will be increased and The Tifco Hotel Group, which is currently facilitating the mandatory quarantine system, is adding 305 rooms that will be ready to start taking booking from this Saturday.
This will bring capacity to 959 rooms which will increase to 1189 rooms by Friday, April 23, with a further increase to 1607 rooms by Monday April 26.
According to the Health Minister, 18 people so far in mandatory hotel quarantine have tested positive for Covid-19, with four of these involving “probable variants of concern.”
"I am very grateful to those that have entered mandatory quarantine and for playing their part to stop the spread of this disease,” he said.
"Mandatory hotel quarantine is a very important public health measure and ensures we continue to have the strongest border biosecurity measures in Europe.
“I would like to extend my particular thanks to the Tifco Hotel Group and their staff for stepping up capacity so quickly and for their commitment to ensuring the comfort and security of those required to enter mandatory hotel quarantine."
Sixteen countries were added to the mandatory hotel quarantine list, however, there was a week gap between this announcement and implementation- meaning many Irish abroad scrambled home before it was made a legal requirement.
There are now 75 countries on the category two list including France, the United States, Italy and Turkey.
The European Commission has now “raised concerns” about Ireland’s extension of Covid-19 mandatory hotel quarantine to key member states.
Brussels officials have confirmed that the policy-guiding Commission is concerned about whether the new rules are “in line with EU law and whether they are proportionate and fair.” The news of EU concerns follows a strong message of public criticism from the Italian ambassador in Dublin.
In a message to the Italian community in Ireland posted on YouTube on Thursday, the Italian ambassador, Paolo Serpi, criticised mandatory quarantine as “selective and discriminatory”. Italy is one of the new countries added to the list.
The strong message from the Italian ambassador in Dublin is an extremely unusual move and seen as reflecting a depth of feeling on the issue.
“We believe that these measures are excessive and do serious, severe harm to our co-nationals and in particular to our communities here in Ireland, and we cannot accept this,” Mr Serpi said in the message.
The ambassador added that he had written to Health Minister, Stephen Donnelly, saying he hoped the measure is is revoked very soon.
“I also noted that our country Italy is undertaking a serious vaccination campaign and that in reality in Italy there exist at this moment the same variants that are hitting Ireland, there are not others,” Mr Serpi said.
“So measures that are in a way selective and discriminatory in Ireland towards communities, countries that are in the European Union, are measures that should be done with the utmost caution,” the ambassador added.
In the message, the ambassador and calls on his fellow Italians to work together to “in the shortest time possible bring to an end these measures”.
Speaking further this morning, the Italian Ambassador said that the countries within the EU (Italy, Belgium, France, Luxembourg and Austria) that were added to the mandatory hotel quarantine list were added to due to concern about variants.
But he pointed out this was due to the face they were among the most advanced health systems in Europe and had done extensive tracking of data on variants, while other countries had no data at all
Mr Serpi told RTÉ Radio One’s Morning Ireland, that he believed these countries were "targeted" for this by the Irish Government, for "being serious in the detection of variants".
Irish Government officials insisted that they had engaged at all times with the European Commission about all its Covid 19 precautions, including the latest changes. “We kept the EU informed about our plans at every stage and the various EU member state embassies were also advised and briefed in advance about our plans,” an official told the Irish Independent.
The news from Brussels comes after five EU member states were added to the ‘red list’ requiring arrivals to undergo mandatory hotel quarantine at the cost of €1,875 for 12 nights. The list of red countries now includes EU members, Austria, Belgium, France, Luxembourg and Italy.
Brussels lawyers acknowledge that the specific restrictions are a matter for each national government. But when issues of EU citizens’ rights – such as the right to free movement – are concerned the Brussels executive reserves the right to assess such measures.
EU sources have confirmed that the demand for €1,875 may be seen as excessive. There are also questions about the criteria used to pick the countries covered with suggestions that other countries not on the quarantine list have comparable or more serious rates of Covid-19.
In Dublin, Irish officials tried to play down the EU Commission inquiries and a Government spokesman stressed that they were engaging with the EU authorities. “The European Commission has asked for information and clarification on aspects of Ireland’s mandatory quarantine and this has been provided,” the Government spokesman said.
The decision to expand the list to which quarantine applies was made last Friday at a special Cabinet meeting. It followed deep tensions with considerable reservations being expressed by the Foreign Affairs Department against strong arguments from the Health Department that the extension was necessary.
The weekly number of arrivals into the country remains unchanged since mandatory hotel quarantine has been brought in. Approximately 12,000 passengers a week were being recorded as coming into the country in February and March.
However, according to Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan, around 12,000 passengers came into the country last week and 98 of those did not have a booking at a quarantine hotel. Twenty-nine passengers did not have negative PCR test results and 50 people came into the country on flight transfers from other airports.
Nineteen people flew directly into the country without a booking in a quarantine hotel. Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan said that 29 people not having negative test results out of the 12,000 passengers in is a “relatively small number”.
“Coming in today were five flights from the States which I understand had 12 passengers on board in total. So, the numbers are very, very low by any historic comparison,” Mr Ryan added.