A standoff that has led to international travellers coming to Northern Ireland during the pandemic without having to isolate may be over.
The Irish government has so far refused to hand over passenger locator data to authorities here, citing legal and data protection concerns.
This means anyone flying into Dublin from around the world has been able to travel to Northern Ireland unchecked since the start of the pandemic.
The situation has become even more concerning since the emergence of the South African and Brazilian variants of Covid-19 and the revelation that 3,000 people flew to the Republic from the affected countries in recent weeks.
But last night, it emerged that passengers arriving in the Republic without proof of a negative Covid-19 test will be held in quarantine for up to two weeks under plans agreed by the Irish Cabinet Committee on Covid-19.
Anyone travelling from Brazil or South Africa will also be held in State-run quarantine hotels for up to a fortnight.
The Cabinet Committee also agreed to temporarily suspend all visa-free short-term travel from South Africa and Brazil.
Anyone arriving without a negative PCR test will also face a fine up to €2,500 and/or six months imprisonment. Passengers will have to pay for their own stay in quarantine hotels which may be policed by security firms.
The committee also agreed to increase Garda checkpoints near all ports and airports.
Meanwhile, Irish Transport Minister Eamon Ryan said gardaí had put checkpoints near airports since Friday in an attempt to cut out non-essential flying.
He also told Claire Byrne on RTÉ Radio 1, that there will be extra checks near the border, but said the idea of restricting travel across the border, or creating an “all-island bubble isn’t politically possible as of yet”.
“If someone is on a road 5km south of the border, and doesn’t have a valid reason as to why they are travelling, they will be subject to prosecution and a fine. The guards have those powers,” said Mr Ryan. There was no specific news on whether passenger locator data would be shared with the authorities here.
It had been reported that Health Minister Robin Swann was becoming increasingly frustrated at the impasse — but First Minister Arlene Foster revealed yesterday that Taoiseach Micheal Martin told her he hopes the matter will be resolved “soon”.
Detailing a telephone conversation with Mr Martin where the pair discussed a number of matters relating to the pandemic response, she said: “I also pressed him on sharing travel locator forms. He committed to movement soon on that issue.”
The arrival of a vaccine resistant strain in Northern Ireland would be “catastrophic”, according to public health expert Professor Martin McKee.
Ministers at Westminster were due to discuss at a meeting yesterday whether to tighten restrictions at UK borders, including the possibility of hotel quarantines for travellers.
A spokeswoman from the Department of Health said: “There have been ongoing discussions between the four nations on the potential tighter border measures that could be introduced.
“Often there is alignment between England and devolved administrations where operationally possible.
“There is also an open dialogue with Republic of Ireland officials to consider how we can work together collaboratively.”
Under current travel curbs, almost all people arriving in the UK must test negative for Covid to be allowed entry. However, at a Downing Street news conference on Friday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson did not rule out taking further action. Asked about the possibility of quarantine centres for new arrivals in Northern Ireland, the chief medical officer, Dr Michael McBride, said: “In terms of new variants, new variants are going to be with us, you can’t put the genie of this virus back into the bottle.
“It will continue to mutate, some of these new variants
undoubtedly will be areas of concern, many of them as we have seen to date will be more transmissible and some of them may become problematic in terms of escape from the vaccine and we’re just going to deal with that.
“I think the measures that we put in place in these islands will delay the arrival of new variants. But you can’t prevent totally the arrival of new variants because they are so transmissible; that will happen in time because we known the movement of people internationally and globally is important... so the most we can hope to do with some of the restrictions we put on travel is delay until we get more people vaccinated.
“In terms of quarantining people at hotels, I think that probably helps with confidence. As to how much additional benefit from a public health perspective and an epidemiological perspective that would add, I think that’s probably debatable.”
Over a 30-year period, between 1968 and 1998, an estimated 3,600 people on the island of Ireland lost their lives in the murder and mayhem that took place. More than 30,000 people suffered injuries, many horrific.
A Northern Ireland man has told of the terrifying moment he feared he would die from Covid-19 – and of listening to the heartrending conversations medics were forced to have with those on the wards who were not going to survive.