Passengers arriving into Ireland may be held in quarantine hotels for at least five days if they do not arrive with a negative Covid-19 test, Taoiseach Micheál Martin has revealed.
Speaking to the Irish Independent, Mr Martin said he is considering a number of quarantining options for international travellers as part of an attempt to stop the spread of the virus in Ireland.
The Taoiseach said he expected hotels, including the Citywest in Dublin, to be used as quarantine centres for people arriving in Ireland.
“You could be in quarantine until you get a test after five days that proves to be negative,” Mr Martin said.
It comes as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned there was “some evidence” the UK strain of Covid, which accounts for 60pc of cases here, may also be up to 30pc more deadly.
Although the data is “uncertain”, the UK’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance suggested that for a man in his 60s, the risk of death with the new variant is 13 in 1,000 rather than 10 in 1,000.
Mr Martin said new quarantining regulations would “be close to sealing off the country”, a major policy shift but he insisted essential travel would be permitted.
He said consideration had to be given to who would police the quarantine hotels and what concessions could be made for people who live in Ireland and were returning home from overseas.
He also said the Government would support a ban on all travel into the EU if it was introduced by Brussels.
Mr Martin said you “could feel the anxiety” among EU leaders about the dangers of new Covid-19 variants during a video conference on Thursday.
“It’s a race between the vaccination on the one hand and the new variant on the other which could wreak havoc with all of our best laid plans and maybe new variants of the UK variant on top of the South Africa,” the Taoiseach said.
However, he said he expected more than a million people in Ireland to be vaccinated by June, along with a significant easing of restriction. “It will be a different society, a bit more freer,” he said. “We will have greater choices to make in terms of what we open.”
Mr Martin said the Cabinet would decide on extending restrictions on Monday and it would be re-evaluated at the end of February.
Last night, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly’s spokesperson said he was examining “stronger measures” on incoming international travel.
“This includes the potential for new measures and also more robust enforcement of existing measures. This has become particularly relevant in the context of the emergence of the Covid-19 variants in the UK, South Africa and Brazil. An inter-departmental group is currently developing a range of options,” the spokesperson said.
Meanwhile, the warning about the UK variant was part of a double blow in the fight against the virus as Oxford/AstraZeneca announced the volume of its vaccine delivery would be lower than expected due to reduced yields at its manufacturing site.
The vaccine – due to get approval next week – is seen as a game-changer here because it is easy to administer by GPs and pharmacies and it will be central in rolling out the jab to over-70s.
Ireland was hoping to get a delivery of 600,000 in the first quarter.
The worrying development on the deadlier impact of the variant comes as the death toll here from the disease this month rose to 582 yesterday as another 52 fatalities were announced.
The setback comes as hospitals around the country were reaching the limit of 350 intensive care beds as more patients become seriously ill with the virus.
There were 1,931 Covid-19 patients hospitalised yesterday while the numbers in intensive care rose again to 219.
Asked to comment on reports that the UK strain is more deadly, Prof Kingston Mills, Professor of Experimental Immunology in Trinity College Dublin, said he had yet to see the preliminary data but if it transpired to be correct he would not be entirely surprised.
“I am not too surprised because what we do know is that the reason the UK variant is more transmissable is because the viral load is higher
"If it is higher it would not be incompatible with it being more virulent. Most people have said up until now that it was not more virulent. It fits with what is happening.”
The number of new cases of the virus fell to 2,371 yesterday indicating the incidence is slowly dropping but the growing dominance of the UK variant will cause the spread to reduce at a slower pace and could mean much of the current Level 5 lockdown will have to be in place until mid-March.
Infectious disease consultant Prof Sam McConkey said he would agree with this approach if needed and said he would not put a calendar date on lifting lockdown.