This week’s row about extending mandatory hotel quarantine is another sign of the power struggle between the Government and public health and of the disconnect between the Department of Health and other ministries.
When the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) in October made a sudden call for the country to be placed under Level 5 restrictions, there was shock and anger in Government. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the recommendation had not been thought through.
The same sentiment has now been expressed about the quarantine extension by senior figures in various ministries outside of the Department of Health.
The news that the expert travel advisory group had recommended 43 countries be added to the mandatory hotel quarantine list, including the US, France, Germany and Italy, leaked out just before Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting. That appears to be the first bone of contention.
Legal and diplomatic issues
Above and beyond this some senior politicians believed that given the serious legal and diplomatic issues attached to such a move, there should have been a dialogue before the letter of recommendation was even written. The view was that once the genie is out of the bottle, it is very hard to put it back in.
“This has been the problem from day one,” a source said.
There was frustration in the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Enterprise with officials asking if the hotels were ready for such an influx? What about people who have been vaccinated? What about essential workers? And also: what about the right of European Union citizens to travel freely?
The letter from Attorney General Paul Gallagher to Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly added more heat. It was “very clear”, sources said, in expressing concerns that health officials had not followed the correct process or adhered to the legislation in formulating their advice.
The reaction in the Department of Health has been a mixture of incredulity and confusion. They believe they have followed the process of consultation exactly as they are supposed to.
There is a feeling that the situation in France, Italy and Germany is extremely concerning with dangerous Covid-19 variants in circulation. There is a sense that the Government should be backing up the public health advice, not poking holes in it.
In an interview with Highland Radio yesterday, just hours before a scheduled meeting with Donnelly, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said mandatory hotel quarantine was a justified system, but he said he had a “whole series of questions” about extending it.
He queried whether there would be enough space in the hotels, but crucially he also said he did not believe the system should be applied to countries where a large number of Irish people live.
The reaction to this comment from some in Government has been disbelief.
“Surely this is exactly what we should be doing, surely this is the whole logic,” one source said citing the traffic between the countries.
When Coveney and Donnelly met later, it was with a very small group of senior civil servants and the meeting was later described as “frosty”.
There was strong pushback from Coveney. The upshot was that only about half of the mooted 43 countries would be added to the list – and not the US or those EU countries for now, at least.
Donnelly is understood to still be supportive of adding any countries that pose a serious threat. The message is that this battle is not yet over.
However, any move by him to push this through before the legal and logistical issues have been fully addressed will be viewed by his colleagues as a major political risk.