People deliberately contravening new Covid-19 regulations can be arrested and prosecuted, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris has said.
However, on the second day of the measures restricting people to their homes in a bid to limit the spread of the coronavirus, Mr Harris said the new rules had been “very well received” by members of the public.
“What we’ve observed is that the vast, vast majority of our citizens are compliant. So far so good.”
Mr Harris said people could have legitimate reasons to be away from home, including for “essential working, shopping, pharmacy and medical appointments”.
However, those more than 2km from their home for those reasons should have some evidence with them to explain why they are “out and about”. This could include an appointment card or a text confirming a medical appointment among other examples.
Mr Harris made his remarks during an interview with the This Week programme on RTÉ Radio 1 and while a high-visibility Garda operation, involving thousands of members, was underway across the Republic.
Under the operation, people in their cars or out exercising are being stopped and asked about their movements. If they are found to be acting outside the latest public health advice, to stay at home save for specific circumstances, they are being told to return to their homes.
At some locations where members of the public had flocked last weekend, including beaches, parks and other popular leisure spots, gardaí have taken up position and are turning people away.
In Co Wicklow, gardaí encountered some cyclists on their bikes for leisure or training and, after speaking to them about the restrictions, the cyclists were told to go home.
Garda sources said the hi-visibility operation through the weekend, which involved foot patrols as well as gardaí on bikes and in vehicles, was aimed at ensuring a change in behaviour by the public rather than any desire to take a hard line.
“By even having a presence patrolling the entrances to some places you are making it clear those places are out of bounds and people will stay away themselves. You don’t have to force them and we didn’t have to force them this weekend,” said one source.
Other Garda sources said even when gardaí had the power to arrest people for contravening the new restrictions, policing would continue to be based on seeking cooperation from the public.
They added that while people should have proof they were moving around for work purposes or, where possible, proof they were performing essential tasks, failure to have such proof would not be an offence in itself.
Mr Harris said the Garda was still waiting for new regulations to come into effect that would give members of the force the power to intervene when people deliberately contravened the Covid-19 measures.
“Obviously we will deal with these matters in a graduated response. We will wish to inform people and persuade them to behave properly,” he said.
“But if they don’t, the powers available ultimately; we can make arrests when people aren’t compliant, and that can lead to prosecutions.”
People have been told to stay at home in virtually all circumstances and all public and private gatherings have been banned for two weeks.
The only exceptions to the stay-at-home rule is for travel to health, social care or other essential work, shopping for food and takeaways, medical appointments and for “vital family reasons” such as providing care.
People are also allowed take “brief, individual” physical exercise within 2km of their home.
Mr Harris said a range of measures had been taken within the Garda to keep members of the force as safe as possible. This included distribution of personal protection equipment and changing how rosters were organised to avoid teams of personnel overlapping on duty.
“If you’re out on patrol, you have the same partner for the next few weeks. You’re work colleagues are as small a group as possible.”
The Garda had also taken other measures to minimise the number of members meeting with each other, including meetings be done over the phone. Pre-shift briefing, known as parading time, was being conducted where possible in premises beside Garda stations rather than in stations.
Garda management said it would continue to be advised by its own medical experts and would stay in contact with the Garda representative bodies.
Despite the crisis “policing was a people business” and gardaí were out meeting with the public every day, necessitating as much care as possible, Mr Harris said.
Asked if the Garda had lost members, like other organisations, because they had Covid-19 symptoms or family members had symptoms, he replied: “We’re no different, but at the same time we’re seeing this number fluctuate. We had some away because they had just returned from foreign holidays or foreign trips but now they’re returning back into the workforce.
“But we’ve also had people who are, regrettably, suffering or are close to those who have suffered, or may have been in contact with them.”
Because the numbers available for duty had been increased - by restricting annual leave and temporarily closing the Garda College in Templemore, Co Tipperary - the Garda could cope with losing some members for periods due to Covid-19, he pointed out.
He urged people over 70 years who needed help to contact their local Garda station. If the Garda could not offer some forms of assistance, they would link older people up with local services and volunteers who could help.