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Emergency Covid-19 legislation signed into law by President Higgins after passing in the Seanad

The bill provides a range of emergency measures to help deal with the Covid-19 outbreak.

Image: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

Updated Mar 20th 2020, 9:12 PM

PRESIDENT MICHAEL D Higgins has this evening signed the emergency Covid-19 legislation into law, after it was earlier passed in the Seanad.

Yesterday, a limited number of TDs attended Leinster House, in order to pass the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Bill 2020. 

Today, similar attendance restrictions were in place in the Seanad.

Having been passed by both Houses, it has now been signed into law by President Michael D Higgins. 

He said in a statement: “As President, I am urging all citizens, given the emergency of our situation in relation to the grave challenge to our public health, to respond in a generous way to the Health Service Executive’s advice on measures to alleviate the spread of Covid-19.

These new health and social measures may be difficult for many but they affect us all and we are at a point now when a person’s actions have consequences not only for themselves but for all in society. Irresponsible individual action puts all at risk. We must draw on our strengths now.

Speaking to senators earlier today, Heath Minister Simon Harris said: “Doctors will save hundreds of lives during this crisis, but the people of Ireland can save thousands.”

He urged people not to be out socialising this weekend. 

The Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Bill 2020, which can be read here, provides for changes to remove the waiting period for payment of Jobseeker’s Benefit and Jobseeker’s Allowance in cases related to Covid-19 diagnoses and isolation.

The Bill also deals with the issue of detainment if someone is either diagnosed or suspected to be a source of the virus.

Under the government’s emergency measures, if a medical officer believes “in good faith” that a person is a potential source of Covid-19 and is a potential risk to public health and refuses or is unlikely to self-isolate, the officer can order their detention and enforce isolation.

Medical officers can order a person’s detention in a specified hospital or another place until it is deemed that the person’s detention to self-isolate is no longer required.

A medical officer must also make sure a medical examination of the person detained is carried out as soon as possible and no later than 14 days from detention.

Yesterday there were calls for this section of the bill to be tightened, with the definition of who a medical officer is to be included in the legislation. 

The emergency legislation also gives powers to the minister to shut down mass gatherings as well as designating a region an infection area.

The main issue of concern among some politicians related to a time-limited review or “sunset clause” being included in the bill. 

Last night, Health Minister Simon Harris accepted the concerns, with the government putting down an amendment to include a sunset clause review on 9 November 2020.

This means that the powers which will be enacted under this new law will be reviewed, with an option to let then fall or be renewed.

A number of TDs spoke today on the legislation today. 

Seanator Alice Mary Higgins raised conerns about detentions, stating:

“At the moment somebody who is detained under the powers of the bill based on an appearance that they may be a source of Covid-19, they are guaranteed medical examination within 14 days. Two weeks without medical contact is detention without evidence.”

Senator Gerard Craughwell said Ireland needs to realise “we are at war. This is a war on humanity.”

He called those who are breaking social distancing “clowns”. Senator Lynn Ruane spoke about her grandmother being unwell and the sacrifices she and he family have to make in avoiding contact with loved ones in order to protect them. 

Senator Catherine Ardagh expressed her sympathies to the families of those that have already died of the coronavirus. 

Senator Máire Devine, who has re-registered as a nurse through the Call for Ireland recruitment drive, told the Seanad today that young people are still not paying heed to the warnings. 

She described an encounter with a group of 14 or 15 year olds hanging around outside a pharmacy.

“They started playing tag with the older people and running away and shouting COVID-19,” she said.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney criticised some young people who he said are ignoring social distancing recommendations. Speaking in the Seanad, he called on the public to confront those not taking Covid-19 seriously.

With reporting from Sean Murray

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