Legislation to extend Covid emergency powers passed by Dáil

Bill provides for the extension of provisions until March 31st, 2022 with a possible extra three months

 Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly  said ‘a medium to long term approach’ in response to Covid-19 was needed. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times

Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly said ‘a medium to long term approach’ in response to Covid-19 was needed. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times

 

Legislation to extend Covid-19 emergency powers passed through the Dáil on Wednesday night.

The Health and Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill passed by 87 votes to 48 and will now be sent to the Seanad. The Bill provides for the extension of the emergency provisions until March 31st, 2022 with the possibility of one further extension of a maximum period of three months.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said previously the length of time of the extension was “proportionate, reasonable and given the environment we find ourselves in, necessary to protect public health”.

Speaking on Wednesday, he said the Government was monitoring the Omicron variant on a daily basis but “ a medium to long term approach” in response to Covid-19 was needed.

“I don’t think it works for anybody to keep going through cycle after cycle after cycle,” he said.

Sinn Féin’s health spokesman David Cullinane asked that every Covid-19 regulation, made under the legislation, be laid before the Dáil at least 48 hours before they come into effect. He said democratic oversight was “really important”.

“We’re talking here about emergency powers, which are very draconian and we’re talking about public health measures which have a real profound impact on people’s lives,” he said.

“I have never said that public health measures are not necessary but if the Government is free, which it has done, to interpret, to nuance, public health advice and then to have a view on how it should be implemented, then surely the same right should be afforded to the Opposition.”

The Waterford TD said there had been “far too many mistakes” by the Government in making and interpreting Covid-19 regulations.

“I’m not going to give you, as the Minister for Health, a blank cheque to make regulations, to do what I’ve seen done in the past without any level of democratic oversight.”

Mr Donnelly said sometimes the Government had to move very quickly in terms of Covid regulations and for that reason it was not practical for them to come under pre-legislative scrutiny.

Labour TD Duncan Smith said there had to be a better approach than “coming back every few months to have a look at extending these pieces of legislation”. He said his party understood that painful and difficult decisions were ahead but that he hoped as 2022 approaches “we will see a more long-term legislative approach”.

“This isn’t a long-term way of dealing with this, this is short-term legislation that’s being rolled over in emergency fashion,” the Dublin Fingal TD said.

“At some stage Covid will be with us and it can’t be an emergency anymore, it’s just going to have to be part of how we are living our lives and our health services adapting to it.”

‘One voice’

Fine Gael TD Paul Kehoe said the legislation was needed as the Government had to make decisions quickly. The Wexford TD said he agreed with the Government’s approach to having “one voice”. “What has been happening over the last few months is that there has been too many voices out on Covid,” he said. “You have Nphet (National Public Health Emergency Team), the Government... It is Nphet’s job to advise the Government, it is the Government’s job to make decisions.”

People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett said he wasn’t supporting the Bill and that the “incoherence and often arbitrary and sometimes directionless approach of the Government” and its handling of the pandemic was frustrating.

“I seriously ask the question at this point, where is the [Government’s Covid] strategy heading? Where exactly are we going with this, what exactly is the objective of what we’re doing, I seriously wonder,” the Dun Laoghaire TD said. Mr Boyd Barrett said he was concerned at the lack of clear rationale for “some of the powers that the Minister wishes to have”.

Independent TD Mattie McGrath described the Bill as “draconian and rushed” and said Nphet had “lost the support and confidence of the people”. “I believe you [Mr Donnelly] and your officials in the department of health have just run riot, you’re running amuck, you have treated this house with total disdain,” he said.

Independent TD Carol Nolan said “we can’t stop everything, we can’t down tools and we can’t do this to people”.