People from Ireland have been advised not to travel to seven countries in southern Africa where a new Covid variant has been identified unless “absolutely necessary”.
Irish residents returning home from the area will have to undergo home quarantine and PCR testing.
The measures are among a number being introduced following concerns about transmission levels of the new Omicron strain.
Ireland currently has no direct flights from any of the countries affected.
One of the big questions the scientific community are looking at now is do the vaccines have any different effects? In other words, can it escape vaccines?Health Minister Stephen Donnelly
The Government has announced Ireland is to align with the EU recommendation to apply the “emergency brake” and to discourage travel to or from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
The Department of Justice is updating visa requirements for those countries and the Department of Foreign Affairs has changed its travel advisory to “avoid non-essential travel” to these countries.
Mandatory hotel quarantine options are being examined on a contingency basis.
Health Minister Stephen Donnelly told RTE: “I am concerned with the initial indications that we have that (it) is highly transmissible.
“We’ve seen in South Africa that it has outperformed and taken over from Delta.
“One of the big questions the scientific community are looking at now is do the vaccines have any different effects? In other words, can it escape vaccines? We don’t know that yet.
“So that’s one of the things we’re looking to so what we’re doing is we’re acting in a precautionary manner, in line with the UK and in line with the rest of Europe and bringing in measures to immediately address the chance of this new variant being imported to Ireland.”
Mr Donnelly added: “The travel advice now is do not travel to these seven countries unless it is absolutely necessary.
“The advice for our residents who are in the seven countries is return as soon as possible to comply with new public health protection measures.”
The new measures followed a meeting between Mr Donnelly, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan to assess available options.
Speaking earlier, Tanaiste Leo Varadkar said: “We don’t know very much about this variant yet.
“We don’t know yet if it’s going to be a variant of concern.
“I think it is fair to say that given our experience with the Delta variant that originated in India, I think governments in the UK and Europe were slow to act on that and I want to make sure that we are not slow to act on this occasion so we are going to act quickly.”
He added: “The legislation has lapsed for mandatory hotel quarantine. So if we introduced that we’ll need to legislate next week to do so.”
I think given what has happened with this variant, there certainly will be, as we move into next Tuesday (Cabinet meeting), the possibility of needing to take further decisionsPaschal Donohoe
Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe said the emergence of the new Covid-19 variant may prompt decisions on fresh restrictions in Ireland.
Mr Donohoe said: “I think given what has happened with this variant, there certainly will be, as we move into next Tuesday (Cabinet meeting), the possibility of needing to take further decisions.”
He said he would not speculate on what decisions may be taken.
“When the Government makes decisions we need to be clear on what we are doing and communicate with clarity, which is what we do our best to do,” he said.
Mr Donohoe said while there was evidence of case numbers stabilising in Ireland, the high level of community transmission meant the country was not best placed to deal with the arrival of a new variant.
It comes as the Government announced that the vaccine booster programme is to be extended to cover all those aged 16 and above.
The recommendations from the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) were accepted by Mr Donnelly and endorsed by Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan.
In a letter to the Government, the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nhpet) recommended that children’s play dates and social gatherings should be avoided for two weeks.
Minister @DonnellyStephen has accepted new recommendations in relation to the COVID-19 booster vaccination programme.— Department of Health (@roinnslainte) November 26, 2021
The new recommendations were made by the NIAC to the CMO, who has endorsed these recommendations.
It also recommended extending the Covid pass to other sectors where there is a high risk of transmission.
Mr Varadkar said there has been a “very sharp increase” in infections among children under 11 in the last couple of weeks.
“That’s the basis towards behind the CMOs’ (chief medical officer) advice, that we want to contain that and put a lid on that,” Mr Varadkar added.
“Any restrictions that the Government decides on next Tuesday will be on foot of that advice.
“There are no plans to close retail or hospitality or any businesses at this stage.
“It’s not something that can be ruled out but the current epidemiological situation doesn’t warrant that because there is now growing evidence that we are now seeing a stabilisation in cases and positivity rate and the numbers as well.”
Mr Varadkar said that any decisions taken by Cabinet relating to children will be advisory and not statutory.
He added: “It is parents to make their own decisions in relation to how they raise their families but the advice from Nphet and Government is that we believe that when it comes to children aged between five and 11, because they’re not vaccinated, they are now at high risk of getting this virus.
School is fine. Home is fine. But I think other forms of mixing probably isn't a good idea at this moment in timeLeo Varadkar
“We are advising children in that age group to reduce their number of social interactions.
“School is fine. Home is fine. But I think other forms of mixing probably isn’t a good idea at this moment in time.”
He said that it is the “hope” of government to keep the hospitality sector and the event sector open across winter, including the Christmas period.
“That will all depend on what happens with cases and situation in the hospitals over the next week or two,” he added.
“But I do acknowledge the fact that unlike other sectors, for example like retail or construction, hospitality are already feeling an impact because people are cancelling events and are cancelling parties and we understand that.
“I’ll certainly be speaking to Mr Donohoe and Minister (Michael) McGrath to see if there’s anything we can do to help that sector to get through the winter period.”