The Minister for Health has told the Seanad that a "Zero Covid" strategy would mean that Level 5 restrictions, or higher, would potentially remain in place "right through to the autumn".

Stephen Donnelly said that many people, including in his own party, have asked why Ireland has not pursued a Zero Covid strategy, similar to countries such as New Zealand.

He told the Seanad that based on the current compliance levels with Level 5 and the effort it would take to achieve Zero Covid, he said the public health advice is that "it's just not possible".

He added that new variants have also complicated the matter.

During a debate on mandatory quarantine legislation, he told Labour Senator Ivana Bacik that he believed the Government was already implementing an "aggressive suppression strategy", similar to the policy advocated by her party.

However, the Labour Party's amendment had called for mandatory hotel quarantine for all non-essential international arrivals.

Under the proposed Health Amendment Act, mandatory hotel quarantine would apply to people arriving from at-risk countries. At present, that list has 33 countries on it.

Mr Donnelly said that if the mandatory quarantine legislation became law, that would see hotel quarantine in place in "England, in Scotland, by proxy through England in Wales, and in Ireland. The only jurisdiction on the two islands where there would not be hotel quarantine is in Northern Ireland".

He called on Sinn Féin to "reflect on that" and engage with "their coalition partners" on the issue as it left a gap in the "bio-defences" for the two islands.

The Seanad tonight passed the legislation to introduce a system of mandatory hotel quarantine.

The Health Amendment Bill 2021 will now proceed to President Michael D Higgins to be signed into law.

While a number of amendments were put forward by Senators, none were carried.

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On the matter of Zero Covid, Minister Donnelly said such a strategy would require "no construction, no education, no businesses. Those little bits we have, the little coffee shop where you can get your coffee on your walk, none of that. No sports, no arts, nothing".

The minister said that there would be reduced levels of non-elective healthcare.

He said that nobody but the most essential workers would be allowed leave their 5km zone for "months and months and months and months".

Mr Donnelly said that after that period, the country would only be "at the start of Zero Covid".

People Before Profit and the Social Democrats are both calling for a Zero Covid strategy, arguing that it would allow Ireland return to normal life and would prevent rolling lockdowns.

Both parties have pointed out that Ireland achieved single digit case numbers last summer and they believe this could be achieved again.

Minister urges caution around quarantine debate

Earlier, Minister  Donnelly told the Seanad that some aspects of the debate around mandatory quarantine have had a "whiff of xenophobia".

During the debate, he said that he has heard some people say that "we must protect our people from foreign people".

He said that it was important to move away from referring to variants as the "Brazilian variant or the South African variant" but rather use the scientific name such as B117, which refers to the variant first detected in Britain.

Mr Donnelly warned that history has shown that xenophobia and racism have been "linked to the perceived fear of importation of disease".

He said that the Oireachtas had an "important role to play" in ensuring that people are aware that travel restrictions are not a reaction to foreigners. He reminded the house that the majority of people arriving in Ireland are Irish people returning from abroad.

Mr Donnelly told Senators that Ireland would be implementing the toughest mandatory quarantine regime in the EU.

However, Senator Alice-Mary Higgins insisted that there must be consistency when it comes to placing certain countries under a mandatory hotel quarantine list.

She said the current list of 33 countries is almost entirely comprised of countries of "the global south, when for example the United States has all of those variants and indeed new variants, B1427, B1429, so we need to be consistent if we are planning criteria and absolutely, we need to be very careful that there's no element of favouritism or xenophobia".

Senator Gerard Craughwell echoed the concern of other Senators, when he said that he had "serious reservations" about legislation coming to the Seanad to "go through all stages in two hours".

He added that "it shows a complete lack of respect for the democratic process and the function and role of this house".

Senator Craughwell said that given that the legislation was in response to an emergency, he was willing to support it on this occasion.