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International travel and the pandemic

The link between international travel and the second wave of Covid-19 in Ireland has been made plain in new research. The study, which is the subject of a feature in this issue, was conducted by Prof Patrick Mallon, Professor of Microbial Diseases in the University College Dublin School of Medicine and Consultant in Infectious Diseases in St Vincent’s University Hospital.

It showed that following the first lockdown, viral genetic ‘lineages’ of the SARS-CoV-2 virus detected in the first wave disappeared from infections contributing to hospitalisation in the hospitals that participated in the study. In the second wave, lineages that originated outside of Ireland and were not found in the first wave were detected. This suggests that the second wave was the result of people travelling into Ireland and that it was not sparked by a renewal of the first wave.

Will this make a difference to official policy? Recently, new legislation was introduced to enforce mandatory State quarantine in hotels for passengers from ‘high-risk’ countries. The hotel isolation measures will apply to countries currently on the category 2 list. This applies only to where the risk of transmission of Covid-19 or mutations of the virus is deemed high. Mandatory quarantine at a designated facility is also a requirement for passengers who arrive in breach of the pre-departure ‘not detected’ PCR requirement.

The plan has received criticism from opposition parties who note that thousands of people moving through our airports would not be subject to the proposed hotel quarantine regime. Instead, they would be relied upon to quarantine themselves, depending on their circumstances. The failure of international travellers to sufficiently restrict their movements after arrival has been attributed to contributing to the continued spread of the virus and the huge rise in cases over the Christmas and New Year period.

It is unlikely the Government will commit to any further measures on mandatory quarantine. Most of the hope on emerging from the crisis lies now in the (albeit slow) roll-out of the vaccination programme. The Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly recently told the Seanad why, in the Government’s opinion, a ‘zero Covid’ or elimination approach will not work in this country. Speaking on 1 March, the Minister said an elimination approach would require the current lockdown restrictions remaining in place beyond September with schools closed and the 5km travel limit reduced to 2km.

The Minister also described proposals to impose stricter controls on people entering the country as carrying “a whiff of xenophobia”. Yet the Government has also been accused of bias in terms of which countries are designated as high-risk. The majority of these countries are South American and African.

The Minister’s comments are typical from a Government that has constantly sought to muddy the waters in terms of pursuing a zero Covid approach. It may very well be that the time such a strategy could have worked here has passed. Given the gaps in the pandemic response to date, there are also doubts whether such a significant endeavour could be managed by the State.

The slowness to recognise the threat posed by international travel, and act accordingly, is but one example of how the nature of the pandemic has been beyond the grasp of our leaders.

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