DUBLIN — The Irish government plans to place travelers from 20 mostly African countries into quarantine in hotels but permit others arriving in Ireland to “self-quarantine,” a policy that opposition leaders call phony and futile.
The government’s Health Amendment Bill progressed Thursday in a 124-5 vote, the first full parliamentary vote staged this year because of COVID-19 restrictions. The bill proposes to place arrivals from Austria, Dubai, Brazil and 17 African countries into mandatory 14-day quarantine in hotels, the first time this measure has been attempted in Ireland.
The rationale for the list is to reduce importation of the more infectious South African and Brazilian variants of COVID-19 in a country that expects to remain in lockdown until April at least. The English variant is dominant in Ireland but only isolated cases of the others have been confirmed here.
Prime Minister Micheál Martin said Austria is the lone European nation currently included because of an outbreak of the South African variant there.
“This will be the most robust hotel quarantining system anywhere in the EU,” Health Minister Stephen Donnelly told Ireland’s lower house of parliament, the Dáil, during a daylong debate on the bill. He said more countries could be added if public health experts recommend this.
Opposition lawmakers, who largely abstained, vowed to press amendments to toughen and broaden the government’s plan. They argued that Ireland should use the advantage of being an island to force arrivals from all countries to spend two straight weeks isolating in state-supervised hotel facilities.
They accused Donnelly and Justice Minister Helen McEntee of falsely claiming that police were actively monitoring whether new arrivals were quarantining in private residences as they’re supposed to do. Police representatives insist they’ve received no clear instructions on this.
“You’re making a bags of it and leaving our communities vulnerable and wide open,” said socialist lawmaker Bríd Smith, using Irish slang for doing a poor job.
“This is a mess, a holy mess,” said Pearse Doherty from the nationalist Sinn Féin, who noted that thousands of travelers arriving daily into Dublin Airport would not be subject to the proposed hotel quarantine regime. “The system that you’re proposing will not work. Mandatory quarantine in a home is farcical and unenforceable.”
“Why aren’t we doing everything we can to protect our people?” asked Labour Party leader Alan Kelly. He said allowing travelers to be “honor-bound to quarantine themselves” would ensure the arrival and spread of more variants.
Kelly noted that Ireland’s surge in infections followed a government decision to reopen restaurants and ease restrictions on family gatherings in December following months of lockdown. More than 50,000 Irish residents of Britain came home for the holidays, bringing along the English variant — now responsible for 9 in 10 new cases here.
“We all saw that at Christmastime, when people came back into the country,” he said. “There was no way they adhered to a quarantine.”
“Quarantining at home is a nonsense. It’s a contradiction in terms. People can’t isolate if they’re sharing accommodation. And the idea that the guards [police] are going to knock on people’s doors is just throwing shapes. You’re not serious,” Social Democrats leader Róisín Shortall told Donnelly.
She said the government’s failure since March 2020 to police travel from Britain, Europe and the United States had reduced Ireland to “almost a zombie state.”
The justice minister, McEntee, said about 300 people — among tens of thousands who have flown abroad from Ireland for holidays in recent weeks — had been fined the maximum €500 at Dublin Airport for making journeys deemed “nonessential.”
She said police would not be based at the proposed hotel quarantine centers because “those who are serving their period of mandatory quarantine have committed no crime.”
The bill faces further scrutiny before expected final passage next week, but socialist lawmaker Paul Murphy said the government would not accept amendments.
He called the bill “a joke” that proposed “to close one window in a house with the front and back doors open.”
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