Alternative Approaches - Part 1 International Travel

Whilst chatting to friends on zoom recently, a story from Cuba caught my ear. After the revolution of the 1950s, the country attempted to stop a brain drain by cracking down hard on mass immigration. Citizens were prohibited from leaving or returning to the country without strict government approval. During this period travelling abroad was less likely to be a two-week vacation, instead, escaping the fall out from a near-decade of conflict and the rise of communism under Fidel Castro. Anyone found leaving or attempting to leave without government approval faced a 1-3 year prison sentence according to a 2005 report by the Human Rights Watch. It wasn’t until 2013 that such a requirement was abolished, but even then the cost to get a passport to leave was in itself a crippling burden. The BBC reported that such costs at one point mounted to “15 times the average monthly state income.” From 2013 passports would be significantly cheaper. But the cost was still a considerable restriction to many citizens.

I keep playing this story in my head when I think of us in Ireland today. Don't think I'm been melodramatic here, the reality is we could be facing a similar burden for intention travel for years to come if our international travel strategy during COVID isn't rethought.

You see we're banking on a vaccine to allow us the freedom to move about... But the first thing to realise is, this vaccine isn't guaranteed to stop spread nor have we enough data to know if it works on other variants... Variants have been the supposed reason to justify hotel quarantine.

Just like Cuba, our government are trying to stop us from leaving the country and in doing so are prevent us exercise our “fundamental right” to travel particularly within the EU bloc, Bold statement? No, it's not... In an interview on RTE Prime Time on Tuesday, April 6th Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said when referring to hotel quartering; “We’re talking about restricting freedom of movement within the EU” this is one of several examples when ministers explicitly refer to hotel quarantining as a blocker or disincentive to travel. It may not be a ban on travel but in my book, any restrictions such as these are just passive-aggressive approaches to outright bans, much like the 'Not a mandatory' mandatory vaccine policy potential on its way. You see you may be free to leave… but when you come back you face an unaffordable detention period of two weeks. So this is in effect a ban on travelling if you plan on returning because the cost of returning is close to three weeks the average weekly earnings of an Irish earner (Based on Q4 2019 CSO finding) Not as bad as Cuba but that really should not be a sentence I have to write in an article about freedoms in Ireland in 2021.

This evening [Friday, April 9th ] the government extended their quarantine list to include the US, Canada, Belgium, France, Italy, and Luxembourg bring the total number to almost 80. What countries will be next and when will mandatory hotel quarantine be removed?

“All EU citizens have a fundamental right to free movement in the EU and this applies regardless of whether they are vaccinated or not.”

There are discussions about making vaccinated people exempt from hotel quarantining. Putting aside the breach of fundamental right the EU has discussed (quote above) for those of us who won't have a vaccine any time soon, the fact remains... can a vaccine be enough to protect against variants or prevent the spread... guaranteed? We simply don't know yet and if not then it's hard to see our government exempting vaccinated people any time soon.

So is this mandatory hotel quarantining a breach of our fundamental rights? You are been held in a detention centre! Call it what you want, you can’t leave your room without permission and your permissions are capped. Food must be eaten in the room and this is just some of the many restrictions faced which in my opinion, amounts to borderline solitary confinement.

Currently, there is a challenge before the high court by healthcare worker Inbar Aviezer. The Journal reports her case will be heard tomorrow morning [Saturday, April 10th]. But to sum up the background the case involves a fully vaccinated woman claiming the requirement are “disproportionate”. It will be interesting to see how this case is heard and will set precedent for the future of hotel quarantining.

Look I understand the government's intentions are to keep out variants, reduce cases coming in and all this is just temporary... But the reality is, much like our original two-week lockdown back in March 2020... temporary doesn't mean short term. We don't know how long it is for and how easy it will be to remove when the time comes. When will we know when that time is? The reality is when our government set up procedures, they don't come down very quickly... in fact, if the past year has thought us anything it's easy to get into lockdown... much harder to come out again.

So while we wait for the courts and our government to deliberate over our freedoms and hope the EU may come to the rescue, let me give my opinion on how international travel should be handled.

I understand we want to prevent nasty variants from getting into the country. But prohibiting some countries and not others isn’t very watertight, nor is exceptions to Hotel quarantining. There are many exceptions including Garda, Army personnel, diplomats, member of the Oireachtas or the European Parliament… because all these types of people are immune to the variants, right?

So here is what I propose. A similar strategy to South Korea;

  • Upon arrival, you quarantine at home assuming you arrive with a negative PCR test. Resources are put into place to contact you regularly ensuring you're compiling and don’t leave your home.

  • If you live with family, for goodness sakes use common bloody sense and reduce contact as much as possible such as isolate in your room, perhaps… it's better than paying nearly 2K for a fancy hotel room.

  • Test yourself regularly with rapid COVID tests to ensure you remain negative.

  • And if for some reason you can’t quarantine at home, then take the option to use a facility such as a hotel.

It has its flaws and kinks to be ironed out, but if your the kind who finds fault with these steps but offers no solutions... do you even care about our freedom? Protection is important... but at what cost?

The reality is if we continue with the same strategy, the quarantine list is only going to grow and so too the duration, particularly with a vaccine that still can potentially allow spread. Unless we start thinking differently, on our approach, we're not travelling anywhere any time soon... Your choice for goodness knows how long could be unless; pay substantially (both money, time and sanity) for a two week detention period in a fancy hotel room or don't travel anywhere.

To quote Benjamin Franklin

"Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."

You might be happy to surrender your freedom to be 'safe,' but we were not given that choice... One may justify this in the severest of circumstances for a brief period. But 1 year 27 days and counting isn't brief.

UPDATE MONDAY, April 12 2021

RTE reports that today's High court legal challenge by Inbar Aviezerwill no longer go ahead. Inbar Aviezer and Derek Jennings both took separate legal actions and appeals against mandatory hotel quarantining. Both were released from their hotels yesterday [Sunday, April 11th ] to quarantine at home as part of the overall release of all those who were quarantined in hotels from three countries (Israel, Albanian and St. Lucia) that have since been removed from the hotel quarantine list. This decision was not the order from a legal case, instead of another U-turn by Government. RTE Reported that when Health Minister Stephen Donnelly last week announced his intention to remove said countries he also stated those who had already arrived had to complete their quarantine period. Today's case would have been an interesting conclusion to the legal challenge around hotel quarantine for full vaccinated persons, however, the subject in question been around a country now removed from the list may not have set the same precedent for the future of international travel generally. Therefore my opinions managing international travel above still stand.