No new visa applications have been accepted by the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service since 20 March, the Department of Justice has confirmed to RTÉ.

In a statement, the Department said the decision to "temporarily" cease accepting new visa applications had been taken "... as part of the combined efforts to tackle Covid-19 and to ensure customer safety".

"While it will still be possible to apply for an Irish visa online in the normal manner, these temporary measures mean that applicants will not be able to complete their application process. However, any application made online will remain valid until such time as restrictions are lifted," the Department statement said.

An exception has been granted for certain "Priority/Emergency" cases who will continue to have visas processed.

These include professionals, health researchers and elderly care professionals as well as immediate family members of Irish citizens who are returning to their ordinary place of residence in Ireland.

Visas will also be processed for persons legally resident in the State, those entitled to avail of the provisions of the EU Free Movement Directive, along with transport personnel engaged in the haulage of goods and other transport staff "to the extent necessary".

Also qualifying for visa processing are diplomats, staff of international organisations, military personnel and humanitarian aid workers in the exercise of their functions.

According to the Department, 511 INIS personnel are working from home, with a further 28 based in visa offices abroad.

However, it could not confirm whether any staff had been redeployed under public service policy to areas like processing welfare claims or contact tracing in light of the reduction of activity in visa processing.

In order to establish whether the refusal to entertain new visa applications since 20 March was allowing any backlog of applications to be cleared, RTÉ asked the Department what backlog of applications was awaiting processing in December, and what the situation is today.

The Department responded: " is not possible to state a total number of employment visa applications on hand at a specific point in time, be it December or now. This is because of the fact that visas are received and processed throughout our network of missions globally and not just at the office here in Dublin".

In certain instances where the local mission/embassy has not been able to process visa applications because of local restrictions, the Department has arranged to accept applications in Dublin.

"It is intended to resume accepting applications as soon as safety concerns abate," it stated.

It noted that increasing travel restrictions as well as measures introduced as part of the Government's efforts to interrupt the transmission of Covid-19 mean that travel may not be possible "...and, even if possible, is not advisable unless essential".

The Department says this situation will continue to be reviewed in consultation with the relevant authorities, particularly in relation to health - but admits the decision will affect visa applications.

It notes that visa applications have risen by over 53% since 2014 when just over 101,500 applications were received - but insists processing times have been maintained "and in some cases improved on" over the period.

In January, INIS processed 613 applications, with over 93% granted.

In February, that figure rose to 651 with 89% approved. 

In March, the number of applications processed was 361, with almost 93% granted.

No figure was given for April.

Visa applications are made online with supporting documentation to Ireland's network of overseas missions and visa offices. In addition to the visa offices in Dublin, there are seven overseas visa offices in Abuja, Beijing, London, Moscow, Ankara, Abu Dhabi and New Delhi, staffed by personnel from the Department of Justice and Equality, seconded to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.