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Minister told government will not continue to receive 'a blank cheque' for their Covid response

A number of TDs have been critical of plans to extend Covid-19 emergency powers to November.

Image: RollingNews.ie

A NUMBER OF TDs have been critical of Health Minister’s Stephen Donnelly’s plans to  extend Covid-19 emergency powers to November.

The minister has brought forward an amendment to ensure that there can be only one more roll over date, until February next year. 

However, there was rounding criticism of the minister today from some TDs who called for a much shorter review date, with a number of parties proposing dates in July and September. 

One critic included Fine Gael party chairperson Richard Bruton who said the Dáil is uneasy about the extension of the emergency powers.

“I know Deputies on all sides of the House are concerned about some of the implications of the sorts of powers that have been taken. It is important that we scrutinise these issues and look at ways in which we can gradually return to greater normality through the legislation we enact,” he said.

“There is no doubt that some of these powers are truly exceptional. They ban travel, which is a normal right of a citizen, on a widespread basis. They ban events and permit entry to a person’s dwelling in certain circumstances.

“They provide enforcement powers that are made by regulation and not subject to the sort of scrutiny to which we are used. They change the terms on which mental health tribunals occur. Fundamental rights are at stake in such tribunals. The powers also allow for the detention and isolation of citizens.

“There is no doubt they are extraordinary and exceptional powers that should only occur in the most exceptional of circumstances. Everyone realises we have been living through the most exceptional of circumstances and that powers of this nature have been needed.

“However, we need to start thinking about how to gradually unwind them. Every one of the powers seem to be reinstated by this legislation even though the conditions may have changed and that is why I have some misgivings,” said Bruton.

Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy said on the one hand we are told that many things are being opened up but at the same time, the draconian measures are being rolled over.

Aóntu’s Peadar Toíbín said he is”firmly opposed” to extending the powers, stating that Ireland is a “radical outlier” to Europe. Independent TD Verona Murphy said the government should now give advice and allow people to make up their own mind. 

He pointed out that Donnelly when in Opposition told his predecessor in the Dáil he had serious concerns about the roll over of powers and now he is doing just that. 

Fianna Fáil’s Eamon O’Cúiv said he majority of people accepted the need for these measures, but said as the situation changes, these laws should be rescinded. He said any government that believes they can continue to roll over these measures if the public deem they are no longer needed, then “the public will do what the people do and they will not comply”. 

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly told the Dail that any extension beyond next spring would require a new resolution to be voted through both houses of the Oireachtas.

Donnelly said the November date has been informed by public health advice, with officials of the view the measures “may well be required into late autumn or early winter”.

Sinn Fein warned the Government will not continue to receive “a blank cheque” for their Covid response.

In response to criticism of the Health and Criminal Justice Covid-19 Amendment Bill 2021 in both the Seanad and the Health Committee, Donnelly said the extension to November was “warranted, necessary and proportionate.”

He added: “We do need these emergency powers to unwind the measures that are currently in place in an orderly and sustainable way.

“I feel that allowing one further extension of no more than three months is justified and proportionate.

“If we do find ourselves in the position, which we all dearly hope not to be in, whereby we need some targeted public health measures beyond February of next year, we will introduce another bill and put it through the safeguards that the legislative process provides.”

They are due to expire on 9 June, with a five-month extension now proposed until 9 November.

Donnelly agreed to amend a proposal that would have allowed the powers to be rolled over every three months beyond 9 November.

The emergency powers allow the State to detain people to stop the spread of the virus, restrict travel, require people to wear face coverings and prohibit some events such as large gatherings taking place.

At a meeting of the Health Committee on Tuesday, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) warned it is “deeply concerned” about the Government’s extension of “extreme” Covid-19 emergency powers.

Donnelly said he had heard the criticisms of the bill, and as such had chosen to allow for only one three month extension beyond November, with new legislation required for additional health measures beyond that point.

Donnelly said the measures were necessary to protect the health service and break the chain of transmission of the disease.

“The incidence of Covid-19 is still high, though, as I said it is stable. There are still considerable uncertainties around what measures may be needed over the course of the rest of this year” he added.

Sinn Fein health spokesman David Cullinane said the days of Government being given a “blank cheque” on such legislation are gone.

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He said he was not in a position to say if his party would support the bill, and signalled he will table amendments.

He told the Dail: “As you pointed out, this bill is draconian.

“It does give you extraordinary powers and we’re being asked to give you those powers to go and make regulations, which we then have no ability to either scrutinise or have a say over, or indeed, even evaluate at any time.

“So for all of those reasons, we need to be assured that the Minister has listened, has engaged, and that the voices of the Opposition are not only heard, but taken into account in relation to the bill.

“The days of giving you as a Minister, or anybody else, a blank check in relation to these responses have long gone.

“If you were in my position, I would imagine that you would argue the same.”

With reporting by Press Association

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