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Emergency Covid-19 legislation passes all stages in the Dáil

The government included a sunset clause for the legislation to be review in November after concerns were raised by TDs.

Health Minister Simon Harris in the Dáil today
Health Minister Simon Harris in the Dáil today

Updated Mar 19th 2020, 8:35 PM

THE DÁIL HAS this evening passed the emergency Covid-19 legislation.

A limited number of TDs are attending Leinster House today, with proceedings going on until 8.30pm tonight in order to pass the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Bill 2020. 

The bill will be taken for debate in the Seanad tomorrow, before being signed into law by President Michael D Higgins this weekend. 

While the majority of political parties backed the legislation, which deals with social welfare payments and detaining people who have Covid-19 if needed, a number of amendments were tabled.

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

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.

Speaking in the Dáil, Harris thanked all parties and TDs for their cooperation, saying there is “no time for petty party politics” as we are facing “unparalleled and extraordinary circumstances”.

He thanked frontline staff including doctors, nurses and paramedics, saying “everybody is coming together in a true national effort”. 

Harris noted that over 30,000 people have responded to a massive recruitment drive across the health service to tackle Covid-19.

“Through these tough times the Irish people continue to show strength and resilience. In the dark days ahead, the Irish people will be the light that guides us through.”

“We cannot stop this virus, we cannot wish it away,” Harris said, adding that Covid-19 “does not discriminate based on age, gender or geographical location”. He stressed the importance of HSE guidelines to stop the spread of the virus as much as possible.

Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said the certainty the government gives “in terms of people protecting themselves will be the difference between whether this virus kills hundreds of people, thousands of people or tens of thousands of people in Ireland, it’s as simple as that”.

“That is why we’re asking people to work with us. We will provide as much transparency as we possibly can in terms of the decision-making that is going on within government right now.”

Coveney said departments are “working night and day to try to protect their sectors”. He added that the government will be as “open” and “truthful” as possible “even if the news isn’t good”.

“What we are doing today is not normal, we are asking people to pass legislation because it is necessary.”

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.

Screenshot 2020-03-19 at 14.02.07 The Dáil chamber this afternoon. Source: Screengrab/Oireachtas.ie

The Bill also deals with the issue of detainment, which is something that arose a number of weeks ago when Covid-19 was added to the existing list of notifiable diseases. This already includes diseases like measles and TB.

This issue was the main concern for some TDs today, with many calling for a review of the powers to be included, known as a sunset clause. 

Currently, if a public health emergency or a breakout of infectious disease is declared in Ireland, powers are in place to detain an individual who has an infectious disease.

The emergency legislation also contains powers to detain those suspected of being infected with Covid-19.

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.

A person can ask that their detention be reviewed “as soon as practicable” if they believe they are not a source of infection.

Roscommon TD Denis Naughten as well as Fianna Fáil’s Stephen Donnelly spoke in the Dáil today about their concerns.

Naughten said he wanted the new law to be time limited and reviewed in 12 months time.

He said he was worried if a time limit isn’t in the new law, then it could be abused by some future government.

Donnelly raised the issue of medical officers being designated by HSE to sign off on detentions. He is concerned about the “breadth of people” who might be considered a medical officer under the law, adding that it appears it might be a “low bar”. 

He said it is important to ensure there are “checks and balances” in the law.

This issue was also raised by Labour’s Brendan Howlin, People Before Profit’s Richard Boyd Barrett and others. 

Social Democrat’s co-leader Catherine Murphy said “you just never know where abuse can happen” stating that the sunset clause is absolutely necessary.

Independent Galway TD Catherine Connolly described the law “draconian”, something Harris took issue with, stating that the bill is not excessive as it aims to protect the public.

‘Sunset clause’

Speaking to RTÉ’s Morning Ireland yesterday, Liam Herrick, Executive Director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, described the emergency powers as “invasive”, adding that they “are so significant in terms of our fundamental rights”.

Herrick questioned why only one medical officer is being given the power to order detention and raised concerns that there is no time limit on detention stated in the legislation.

In addition, Herrick questioned what safeguards will be in place for a person who believes they have been inappropriately or illegally detained.

“We need to ensure that the technical aspects of safeguards are correct,” Herrick said.

“And I think what we’re particularly interested to look at is that the standard here is that a medical officer deems the detention to be appropriate.”

Herrick added that it is imperative that any emergency legislation introduced to curb the spread of Covid-19 should be time-limited, or include a sunset clause which stipulates that once this emergency is over it can no longer be used to interfere with rights.

He said the government must act within the Constitution and ensure that any restrictions of rights are proportionate and only as invasive as is necessary to protect public health.

Evictions and rent freeze

Harris said Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy will bring forward separation legislation to support renters. A temporary rent freeze and ban on evictions is being expected to be introduced.

Coveney later confirmed in the Dáil that renters will be “protected”, stating: “We will legislate to ensure that there will be no evictions during this period.”

Speaking in the Dáil earlier, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said “no threat of eviction should hang over anybody’s head” during the crisis.

“Tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs, many more will lose their jobs in the days and weeks ahead, as businesses have had to close their doors.

“And for these families, the fear of the virus is now matched by the fear of bills that cannot be paid, rents that cannot be paid, mortgages that might go into default.”

Catherine Murphy, co-leader of the Social Democrats, said a number of people who have received eviction notices recently have been in touch with her office and are in “an absolute panic”. 

Screenshot 2020-03-19 at 14.18.14 TDs are sitting further apart than normal in order to 'social distance'. Source: Screengrab/Oireachtas.ie

Labour’s Alan Kelly echoed this sentiment, saying any rent that people cannot afford to pay because of the pandemic “cannot be crystallised”.

“This is not like dealing with mortgages. The debt cannot be crystallised. They can’t put it off, they can’t pay it, so the State has to intervene. I cannot be any clearer than that.”

Kelly said personal protective equipment must be made available to all healthcare workers, not just some. He also called on mobile phone data to be used as part of the contact tracing process.

McDonald said the crisis “presents us with the challenge of our lifetime – to protect health, to defend livelihoods and to save lives”.  She called for an island-wide response to the crisis, saying all 32 counties should work together.

She and several other TDs commended the work of frontline healthcare staff as well as the public’s response to the current situation.

‘Utterly shaken’

Ahead of the debate today, Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl called Covid-19 “cruel and capricious”, saying it has “come from nowhere to challenge us”, leaving us “utterly shaken and taken aback”.

Ó Fearghaíl commended Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s address to the nation on Tuesday night, saying “parliamentarians must lead by example” and be at the forefront of dispatching practical, factual information.

“We all have a part to play, we all should be involved,” Ó Fearghaíl added. He said Ireland is “up to the challenge” but it will be a “painful and challenging journey”.

There was limited numbers allowed in the Dáil today for proceedings.

Ó Fearghaíl wrote to party leaders last week proposing that just 48 TDs attend the sitting today, given the need for social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and Fine Gael were asked to limit their TDs attending to 11 each, the Greens to four, the regional independent group to three members, and all other parties and groups to two each.

The Dáil will return next Thursday to pass emergency rent measures announced by the minister today.

With reporting by Christina Finn

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