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No priority testing, one officer on NPHET - garda association criticises lack of involvement in pandemic policing plan

The GRA said this lack of representation has resulted in legal grey areas for officers while policing during this crisis.

Image: Sasko Lazarov via RollingNews.ie

THE PRESIDENT OF the Garda Representative Association has described how he was left frustrated by the lack of garda involvement in the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET).

Jim Mulligan explained that a lack of policing expertise on the emergency panel left the island ill-equipped to deal with some of the policing issues that have arisen since the Covid-19 restrictions were imposed in March.

The GRA has also been strongly critical of the lack of priority testing available for its 13,000 rank-and-file officers.

Hundreds of thousands of interactions by gardaí with the public have been carried out since the lockdown began in Ireland. Checkpoints are now common to ensure the public is only making essential journeys. 

Despite the vast majority of people adhering to the guidelines, there have been over 50 incidents of gardaí being spat or coughed on.

In recent weeks, gardaí have invoked regulations 139, while pre-existing enforcement powers have been used in 1,172 incidents. This means there were 139 arrests relating directly to Covid-19 rule breaches while the other 1,172 arrests were carried out while initially responding to reports of a Covid-19 breach but where other laws were used to arrest – for example, drug possession or drink driving. 

The interactions between gardaí and the public have been pleasant, for the most part, Mulligan explained. 

“Most of the interactions are very positive. We had two states of play. Up until restrictions were put in place, we were only encouraging people to turn back. There’s still a lot of that. Now we have the power to detain but it’s still encourage, engage, explain and enforce in that order.”

There has been a significant increase in the number of garda checkpoints set up since the Covid-19 outbreak, meaning that there is an increased chance of gardaí apprehending serious criminals. 

For example, officers attached to Covid-19 checkpoints have seized around €1 million worth of drugs in the space of two months.

Despite the successes, officers have been spat at, coughed on and had blood spat on them while carrying out their duties during the crisis. 

The GRA said that increased interactions with the public, as well as a rise in the number of people coughing or spitting at officers, means they should be given priority testing. 

90423615 GRA President JIm Mulligan. Source: Leah Farrell

Mulligan explained that two testing centres were due to open in Dublin and the Garda College in Templemore, Tipperary, to facilitate the testing but an unspecified “clinical governance issue” arose and the plans were frozen. 

“You put checkpoints all over the city and you don’t know what you’ll come across. The stressful part is for our lads is when you get spat at. 

“You get them biting their lip to spit blood on you – it can be very stressful in the current climate, you don’t know if this person has this disease and you’re living with kids or elderly parents and you are obviously concerned.

“Dublin Fire Brigade has a 24-hour turnaround period. We feel we should be on the same level. If you have a quick turnaround, then policing will not suffer. If you have one person with symptoms, they’re to be tested and those who were in close contact are to self-isolate until the results come back. It would make sense that within 24 hours you could have everyone back to work and not waiting a week.”

Not only is the GRA frustrated by the lack of priority testing, but it is also the lack of representation on NPHET and its sub-units which are also acting as a bone of contention for the association.

Mulligan said that only one member of An Garda Síochána is listed as being part of NPHET. There are also two staff attached to the Department of Justice who are working with the public health group, he added. 

Mulligan says this lack of representation has resulted in legal grey areas for officers while policing during this crisis. 

For example, he cites the issue of people living in the North who travelled to their holiday homes in the Republic over Easter. An oversight in the regulations meant officers were powerless to order people to return to their homes as they were from another jurisdiction. 

He added that garda input before the regulations were signed off on would have resulted in a more thorough and detailed plan being enforced rather than what was originally put in place. 

“We were annoyed that they didn’t have us there from the get-go”, Mulligan explained.

“With NPHET, there’s 250 across the board and there seems to be only one person from AGS from the whole thing. There should be someone there at the senior level. We are not taking anything away from the medical side of things, not at all, but we have three people with knowledge and expertise with the law on the team.” 

There is a total of 40 people on the main NPHET board. However, another 200 or so people make up what is known as sub-groups which report to NPHET.

Buddy system problems

Gardaí are currently operating a buddy system which garda management said is designed in a way which should help officers reduce social interactions with other members of the force. 

This means that officers are paired up with the same partner and carry out their duties together, instead of mixing with a number of different members on a daily basis. 

A previous statement from gardaí said that the restructuring of the force’s resources has facilitated “the practical application of ‘social distancing’ within An Garda Siochana”.

It added that the new roster separates operational units into ‘islands’ and within these ‘islands’ members have been buddied together.

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However, many officers have said how the buddy system is almost unworkable when working in a large station where there are a lot of active cases, arrests and court hearings to attend. 

Mulligan agreed that there had been complaints from members in relation to the system but that there is only so much that can be done to ensure the safety of garda personnel. 

“It’s a difficult job. The buddy system is there to try to limit the risk as much as possible. We thought it was a good idea and where it works, it does work. We have to go out in the car with someone otherwise you have single occupancy patrol cars, and there’s no point in that if you come into a group of three or four.

“The whole idea is the same people working together. If someone is gone to court or gone out sick, someone else has to work with you. It’s close quarters and not the ideal solution but there’s no other option really.”

Checkpoints and masks

015 Garda Checkpoint Source: RollingNews.ie

The most common complaint Mulligan said the GRA has received since the start of Covid-19 policing is from members who want to wear facemasks, especially at checkpoints. 

He described how officers want to wear masks at checkpoints not only for their own safety but to put the minds of the drivers at ease.

“We’ve had members coming to us about masks particularly on checkpoints, from their point of view and the public – why they’re not wearing masks, there’s a direction we don’t generally wear masks unless there’s a specific reason to do so.

“If you’re standing at a checkpoint, the member of the public is nervous because that garda could have spoken with 300 other people before talking to them. If you look at complaints to Gsoc since this began, a third of the complaints have been that gardaí were not wearing facemasks.

“The health and safety of our members is our top concern.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said: “The Covid 19 testing process is subject to ongoing review and is managed by the HSE.

“The NPHET membership is comprised of public health expertise and does not include representative bodies. There is however continuous and ongoing engagement between Government Departments and agencies.”

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