The European Commission has said the Government should use "less restrictive" quarantine measures for citizens arriving from five EU member states and that there should be clear exemptions for essential travel to Ireland.

The commission said it had written to the Government today asking the Irish authorities to clarify the criteria used to determine which EU countries faced mandatory hotel quarantine.

Travellers from five European Union countries, Austria, Belgium, France Luxembourg and Italy, are subject to mandatory hotel quarantine when they arrive in Ireland.

During a news briefing, commission spokesperson Christian Wigand said: "The commission has concerns regarding this measure in relation to the general principles of EU law, in particular proportionality and non-discrimination.

"We have been in contact with the Irish authorities during the past days on this matter.

"Today the commission sent a letter to the Irish authorities asking for clarifications on this matter and on the criteria used to determine the designated [EU] countries.

"The commission believes that the objective pursued by Ireland, which is the protection of public health during the pandemic, could be achieved by less restrictive measures."

Mr Wigand said that recommendations agreed by EU health ministers in October and February provided guidelines for member states to follow and that these included "clear and operational exemptions for essential travel".

He said: "We invite the Irish authorities to align more closely their measures taken with the provisions of the council recommendation member states agreed in October and updated earlier this year."

Mr Wigand also said the Government had ten days to reply.

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Countries on list to be reviewed regularly - Govt

The Government said it had already given assurances to the EU Commission that the list of countries on the designated list for mandatory hotel quarantine will be reviewed fortnightly, if not more regularly.

It said Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly had already written to the commission on 11 April outlining the criteria involved and the methodology used by the expert advisory group on travel in adding countries to the list.

RTÉ News understands that the letter emphasised that the list will be reviewed at least fortnightly, if not more regularly.

The expert group is continually monitoring case numbers in these countries.

The letter from Minister Donnelly stated that the proportionality test as formulated by EU law was being applied.

It also said a non-discriminatory approach was being pursued.

However, the EU Commission wrote back this morning, asking the Government to differentiate between the five EU countries on the list. The Government is expected to respond with clarifications.

Meanwhile, it is expected that regulations allowing for fully vaccinated people to be exempt from mandatory hotel quarantine will be signed in to law later this evening or tomorrow.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee has said the Government is confident the quarantine system is "proportionate and reasonable" and it will engage with the European Commission to address concerns it has raised.

Minister McEntee told RTÉ's News at One that the system was introduced to protect public health and to prevent incoming Covid-19 cases and variants of concern from entering Ireland and undoing the work that has been done to reduce the spread of the virus.

She said there are very clear criteria used to determine which countries are placed on the list for hotel quarantine by an expert advisory group on travel, which was established by the Government in March.

The minister said this group had developed a method of assessing risks by looking at countries where there were outbreaks of Covid-19, where there are new or emerging variants of concern and where there is a high 14-day incidence rate.

This is measured as a rate of infection that is two-and-a-half times higher than in Ireland, where the rate of infection is currently 120 per 100,000 in Ireland.

She said the advisory group, which includes medical health experts, assess the level of these factors and measures the potential implications of this before referring its information to the Chief Medical Officer for consideration.

The CMO then makes recommendations to the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly about whether a country needs to be added to a hotel quarantine list.

It is understood the commission believes the Irish measures are disproportionate given the cost of hotel quarantine.

Officials also have concerns over the fact that the five member states concerned do not necessarily have the worst records for new variants of the virus.

One official pointed out that the variant first seen in the UK has already widely circulated in Ireland.

The letter being sent is regarded as a pre-infringement proceedings letter, which means it is a formal step towards possible legal action.

The commission sent similar letters to six member states in recent weeks over similar concerns that free movement and non-discrimination principles had been breached.

Those countries included Germany, Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Finland.

Officials say that in such cases legal action tends not to be likely because the measures introduced by member states are, by their nature, temporary.