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Opposition parties say pushing out Covid-19 emergency powers to November is a step too far

Stephen Donnelly has said he will amend the law so that a three-month extension in November is the only one permitted.

Opposition members have called for earlier dates for the review.
Opposition members have called for earlier dates for the review.
Image: LEAH FARRELL; RollingNews.ie

HEALTH MINISTER STEPHEN Donnelly has said he will propose to amend the Government’s emergency laws for Covid-19 restrictions to ensure that there are no “rolling powers” for extensions. 

His comments come as a number of Opposition parties have raised concerns about the extension of the emergency powers until November.

The laws provide for fines relating to travel restrictions and prohibit some events, including large gatherings of over 15 people, from taking place.

Under the Health Preservation Act 2020, the State can detain people to prevent the spread of Covid-19, requiring people to stay in their homes and require the wearing of face coverings.

Ministers also agreed to extend the Criminal Justice Enforcement Powers Act 2020.

It provides additional enforcement powers to the gardaí to address breaches by pubs of the Covid-19 regulations and to close them down temporarily where there is a refusal to comply.

Sinn Féin intends to put down amendments in the Dáil curtailing the emergency period to 9 July rather than 9 November. 

Labour’s Brendan Howlin told reporters this morning that his party has supported the legislation to date as it was necessary to protect public health.

“These are measures that we’d never normally support,” he said.

However, he said rather than November, the current legal framework should only be extended until September.

“Why we say September is that if the Dáil is on recess in the middle of July, something happens, the law hasn’t expired prior to that, to be able to deal with that.

“I think it’s reasonable to be able to say that all these powers will be gone in September. If there is a compelling health reason enduring beyond September, we should review that on a monthly basis and require a decision of the Dáil on a monthly basis,” said Howlin.

Meanwhile, People Before Profit said they would not be voting in favour of extension because of concerns around how gardaí use the powers to limit gatherings which are curtailing the right to protest, said TD Gino Kenny.

Speaking as part of the Rural Independents group, Tipperary TD Mattie McGrath said that extending restrictions until November and then potentially again until February, is a “three card trick”.

Independent Senator Alice-Mary Higgins pointed out yesterday in the Seanad that a clause contained in the legislation allowed for a series of resolutions to keep adding three-month extensions to the emergency powers, with no ultimate endpoint.

Donnelly said today that he had “reflected overnight”, and agreed that a firm endpoint is needed in the emergency legislation. 

While he said he would not be accepting the Opposition’s amendments on alernative review dates, he committed to bring a government amendment, subject to Cabinet approval, that would see just one three-month extension permitted after the proposed extension to November.

‘Draconian measures’

The health minister said the laws “don’t sit well with me”, admitting that they are “draconian”. 

He said he did not want to see them in place for any longer than they have to be, but that the public advice he has received is that the measures could be required into the late autumn or early December. 

His proposed amendment will ensure that there can only be one three-month extension in November, if required, though he said he hopes that such measures won’t be needed. 

Social Democrats co-leaders Roisin Shortall also expressed concerns about plans to extend the emergency powers today, pointing out that there has been no review of the powers, how they are used, and who has been impacted the most. 

If the extension is voted through, then the use of fines by gardaí will be built in to the extension until November, she said.

She suggested a shorter review period, proposing July as an appropriate time-scale for which a review can be done, and debate to be held on rolling over the powers.

Speaking to reporter at Leinster House, Shortall said that she sees no need for penal provisions given the level of compliance out there by the public.

She said the laws are “extremely wide-ranging” adding that it is “hard to see how they are warranted”.

Shortall said the government needed to explain the situation, present the public health advice as to why the extension to November is needed, stating that everyone is in the dark on the matter. 

“It is hard to see why they should be extended for a five month period,” she said this morning, adding that the public don’t understand the level of the powers. 

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She highlighted that when there was messaging around cocooning of the elderly last year, many thought it was a penal provision, and were “terrified” to leave their homes. 

The government needs to be upfront with the public, she said.

Mandatory hotel quarantine 

Separately, the extension of the mandatory hotel quarantine system for a further three months will be voted on on Thursday.

Details around the reopening of international travel will also be announced on Friday.

Shortall, who was a strong advocate of mandatory hotel quarantine and in February called for hotel quarantine to apply to all inward travel, said she believes the system should continue in a “refined” version, stating “this stands to reason”. 

She said she hoped the government will be in a position to put the EU Green Cert into operation “as soon as possible”. If that is implemented, travel will be reopened for a significant amount of people, and people can travel “at ease”. 

She suspects the numbers looking to come into the country from areas with variants of concern will be “quite small” and therefore there will be some need for the hotel quarantine system. 

People are being cautious around booking holidays abroad, she said, adding that “we still need to be careful around international travel”. 

Following her comments this morning, Fianna Fáil senator Lisa Chambers hit out at Shortall stating just a few weeks ago she was calling for zero Covid and for “harsher and tougher restrictions”. 

“Now because that’s no longer popular they’ve completely flipped,” Chambers tweeted today.

Fianna Fáil’s James O’Connor tweeted Shortall’s position is “laughable”.

“The champions of zero-Covid strategy are now lecturing the government on restrictions. You cannot govern by sound bites. It’s a shame that Soc Dem supporters don’t accept that,” she said.

Fine Gael’s Charlie Flanagan said the position of Shortall was a “backward political somersault” and a “cartwheel flip-flop all rolled in to one”.

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