Almost half of arrivals at Dublin Airport yesterday were coming from holiday destinations, the Taoiseach has told a meeting of his party's TDs, Senators and MEPs.

Micheál Martin told his parliamentary party that 800 people arrived into the airport yesterday, including 397 from holiday spots, and the majority of 542 were Irish citizens.  

He said the Government expects to add to the list of countries that mandatory hotel quarantining will apply to. The list now includes South Africa and Brazil.

It comes as Minister for Justice Helen McEntee signed a regulation which will end visa-free travel into Ireland from 12 countries. 

The new measure kicks-in from midnight tonight, and is in response to new more transmissible variants of Covid-19. 

The South American countries losing visa-free status include Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, and Uruguay. 

Only one African state is on the list - South Africa, where one of the new variants first emerged. 

The Taoiseach told the parliamentary party that the list of exemptions for essential workers will be tightened to reduce the level of overseas travel.

He said gardaí are increasing checkpoints at ports and airports, and legislation underpinning mandatory quarantine is being drafted.

Government officials are reviewing the categories of people exempt from travel restrictions here. 

A Government spokesman said the focus is to ensure that the list of exemptions is the "minimum necessary" and are "not open to abuse."

The Government has "no plans at present" to apply mandatory quarantine to travellers from other EU member states. 

That comes after Portugal was deemed to be "high-risk" for the Covid-19 virus by the UK. 

Travellers from Portugal will now be subject to 10-day mandatory quarantine if entering the UK. 

Micheál Martin did not give any specific commitment this evening as to when the country will emerge from the Level 5 lockdown, which is scheduled to last until 5 March at the earliest.

He said the country would reopen in time, but that there would be a sustained containment of the virus and that it was important to get a critical mass of the population vaccinated.

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In the Dáil earlier today, Mr Martin urged people to stop travelling abroad.

"Quite a significant number of people travelling from Ireland are travelling on holidays.," he said. "That needs to stop."

The Taoiseach said the new measures would be implemented quickly, but opposition parties said it did not go far enough.

Amid repeated charges of failing to have a comprehensive plan to deal with this phase of the pandemic, the Taoiseach insisted the strategy was one of a prolonged suppression of the virus.

He said that when Covid-19 numbers fall, they must never return to the levels they are at now.

He said: "It is prolonged suppression of the virus - when we get numbers down we need to keep them down."

However, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said people feel the burden of this crisis like never before and she branded the Government's new plan as just a series of half measures.

She said the Government is mainly placing hope in people themselves self-isolating after returning from overseas, but a universal mandatory hotel quarantine system is required. 

Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy requested the evidence to support the Government's contention that international travel is not a major factor currently in the spread of the virus.

She said the virus variant did not arrive on a south easterly, but rather on a plane or a boat.

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Elsewhere, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said that the Government plans to implement mandatory quarantine at hotels within a few weeks.

He said they may expand the measure to include other groups of incoming travellers if called to do so by the European Union or as part of any coordinated effort with Northern Ireland. 

Speaking on RTÉ's News at One, Mr Varadkar said that only small numbers would face mandatory hotel quarantine initially, but that the Government wants to have the capability to apply the measure more widely if the situation demands it.

He said that restrictions on international travel are not the "silver bullet", as 1,000 people a day are contracting Covid-19 and as little as 1% or less of those cases are as a result of international travel.

Mr Varadkar said that the key to getting the virus numbers down therefore is to stay at home.

He said that the Government can use Citywest hotel for mandatory quarantine, but plans to set up a hotel near Dublin Airport with trained staff and the implementation of a quarantine system.

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Additional reporting by Paul Cunningham