Coronavirus: Sweeping Garda powers take effect despite Cabinet divisions

Legislation needed to allow gardaí arrest people who flout Government restrictions

New legal powers to curtail the movement of people mean that gardaí can now instruct someone to return home. If they fail to comply they face arrest, a fine of €2,500 or a six-month jail term. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

Minister for Health Simon Harris has signed into law new regulations granting gardaí sweeping powers to enforce restrictions on public movement due to Covid-19.

Mr Harris signed the regulations hours after a Cabinet meeting where divisions emerged over the new laws which are needed to allow An Garda Síochána arrest people who are not complying with Government restrictions.

It comes as the National Public Health Emergency Team appealed to the public not to engage in unnecessary travel over Easter. With the Covid-19 death toll rising to a record daily high of 36 on Tuesday, chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan called on people to “stay the course” and commit to the continuing implementation of the restrictions on movement.

The measures are unlikely to be loosened significantly for another three or four weeks, until testing and contact tracing are ramped up so that suspected cases can be identified quickly, the public health emergency team indicated.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Prime Time, Mr Harris said it was important the gardaí have the new powers “in their back pocket” as a reserve should they need it.

However, during a “lengthy” Cabinet discussion, sources said some Ministers expressed concerns about the new regulation potentially “going a step too far”.

The regulations are required for the coming into effect of powers contained in the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020, which recently completed its passage through the Dáil and the Seanad.

The law allows that a person who refuses to comply with an instruction of a garda who is seeking to impose social distancing rules, is guilty of an offence that can lead to a prison sentence of up to six months.

“A number of Ministers spoke in favour of the regulations being signed, saying that gardaí need the power to be able to enforce these measures should it come to that,” said a senior source.

“But some at the Cabinet are worried because this is a totally new approach; these are ground-breaking rules. So some are fairly uncomfortable and worried it is a step too far.”

Ministers have privately expressed concerns that the longer the restrictions are in place, the harder they will become to police.

Republic’s death toll

There have now been 210 Covid-19 related deaths in the Republic. The public health emergency team also reported 345 new confirmed cases on Monday. The total number of confirmed cases now stands at 5,709.

A source indicated that ‘some at the Cabinet are worried because this [additional powers] is a totally new approach’. File photograph: Crispin Rodwell/Irish Times
A source indicated that ‘some at the Cabinet are worried because this [additional powers] is a totally new approach’. File photograph: Crispin Rodwell/Irish Times

Dr Holohan said lifting of the restrictive measures “doesn’t look likely at this point in time”. While the measures would not be in place any longer than necessary, the deciding criteria would be the growth rate in cases, intensive care admissions and deaths, and the ability of the system to detect and test suspected cases “in real time”.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is to discuss the Covid-19 crisis, the conduct of funerals, as well as helping the bereaved in these difficult times, with church, faith and ethical leaders on Wednesday.

Mr Varadkar also met Garda Commissioner Drew Harris on Tuesday to discuss the public’s compliance with social-distancing guidelines. While the levels of compliance were described as generally good, Mr Harris is understood to have expressed concern about families travelling to holiday homes ahead of the Easter bank holiday weekend. Concerns were also expressed about cyclists travelling large distances, sometimes in packs.

News Digests

Stay on top of the latest newsSIGN UP HERE