McEntee confirms no additional powers for gardaí to enforce Level 3 restrictions

Ministers defend decision to reject public health emergency team advice on Level 5 move

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said gardaí still had the power to prosecute organisers of indoor or outdoor gatherings in excess of the limits. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said gardaí still had the power to prosecute organisers of indoor or outdoor gatherings in excess of the limits. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

 

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee has confirmed there will be no additional powers for gardaí to enforce Level 3 restrictions which will be introduced countrywide from midnight for three weeks.

Ms McEntee said gardaí still had the power to prosecute organisers of indoor or outdoor gatherings in excess of the limits. These state no more than six people from one other household or no more than 25 people at a wedding.

Her comment comes after Tánaiste Leo Varadkar appeared to suggest last night that gardaí would be given enforcement powers.

Mr Varadkar said told RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live on Monday night that moving all 26 counties to Level 3 would be backed by greater enforcement than that in place for Dublin and Donegal, which were already on Level 3.

“A lot of this is going to be in law including staying in your county except for work or education or to care for somebody,” he said.

When asked if gardaí would police that provision, Mr Varadkar replied “the guards will be out”, adding that Ms McEntee had on Monday been granted additional money by Government to cover Garda overtime.

“We will update the laws, potentially to bring in a different system of fines and so on,” he added. But he failed to offer any more detail on specifics of the increased enforcement.

His remarks on Monday night resulted in the Garda Representative Association (GRA), which represents rank and filed gardaí, and the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (Agsi), which represents sergeants and inspectors, calling for clarity on Tuesday around what new offences are being created and what new powers gardaí would have in policing the pandemic.

However, Ms McEntee confirmed on Tuesday that no new powers were being prepared for the latest phase of public health measures.

Last week, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris said he was unconvinced that giving the Garda additional powers in the context of policing a public health pandemic would be good for the Republic. He told the Policing Authority the force wants to emerge from the pandemic with its strong relationship with the public intact.

The GRA said its members had always policed by consent. But it believed there should be Garda input concerning the Government’s public health decision-making process for the duration of the pandemic. It believes any information about changes to enforcement or policing should be shared with the Garda authorities before it happens and before the public is informed of it.

GRA president Jim Mulligan said members did not know what enforcement changes would be, describing them as “speculative”. He made his remarks before Ms McEntee confirmed no new powers are being introduced.

Mr Mulligan welcomed the additional funds for Garda overtime as crimes such as burglaries and thefts, which had plummeted during the previous lockdown period, are now “back in play”.

Penal offences

Ms McEntee has warned that if the country moves to Level 4 or 5 then she wants it to be a penal offence to travel outside one’s own county.

At present gardaí can only urge the public to keep to the guidelines and do not have the power to enforce restrictions, the Minister told RTÉ’s News at One. There will be more gardaí at checkpoints countrywide in an attempt to engage, educate, encourage and enforce restrictions, she added.

Ms McEntee said gardaí do not need additional powers to enforce the regulations in relation to events indoors as it is already an offence to host such an event, she said. With regard to marches and public demonstrations, the force is trying their best but there is a right to public assembly. The Minister said that the Government is looking at what measures worked in other jurisdictions and the possibility of on-the-spot fines.

However, that raised the issue of what measures would have to be implemented if people refused to pay the fines. “We are continuing to look at this,” she said.

Defending decision

The Minister also said the Government had full confidence in National Public Health Emergency Team despite ignoring their advice to tighten restrictions to Level 5.

Earlier, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly also defended the Government’s decision to reject a call from the to move to Level 5 restrictions and said the State has adequate intensive care bed capacity.

The Government last night announced a tightening of restrictions and a new campaign of enforcement. But it decided not to follow advice of public health experts despite warnings that infections would surge if the country was not placed in an immediate lockdown.

In a significant break with public health advice and after a series of tense meetings between Ministers and officials, the Cabinet moved the entire country to Level 3 restrictions from midnight on Tuesday for the next three weeks, rather than the Level 5 requested by chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan.

In an extraordinary attack last night, Mr Varadkar criticised Dr Holohan and the team for springing the surprise of Level 5 recommendation on Government without notice or consultation on Sunday and also for not thinking through its recommendation.

He said the team’s rationale that hospitals would be overwhelmed was “not shared by the CEO [chief executive] of the HSE [Paul Reid] and the HSE were not consulted on this”.

Mr Varadkar also referred to the introduction of enhanced enforcement options but did not outline these in detail.

Under Level 3 restrictions people will be asked to remain in their county and can have up to six visitors from just one other household.

Indoor gatherings will be banned and wet pubs, restaurants, cafes and bars serving food can remain open for takeaway, delivery, and outdoor dining/services to a maximum of 15 people. Wet pubs in Dublin remain closed. Nightclubs, discos and casinos remain closed under Level 3.

Publicans have warned that this is an effective closure order for most pubs and that tomorrow, when the restrictions come into force, 50,000 bar staff will lose their jobs.

Intensive care beds

Ahead of a Cabinet meeting this morning, where the fallout from the Government’s decision was discussed, Mr Donnelly said the health service could make additional intensive care unit (ICU) beds available quickly if required.

“Lets remember that at the very height of this, when there were many more people in hospital, and many times more ICU admissions, we didn’t come close to needing the kind of ICU capacity that the HSE had put in place,” said Mr Donnelly.

Mr Donnelly said he had spoken to Mr Reid about the issue, who told him he believes there is sufficient capacity in intensive care beds.

Asked if he would take responsibility if the decision to depart from public health advice proved wrong, Mr Donnelly replied: “It’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s about trying to make the best decision we can given the evidence we have.”

The Minister said the situation had changed since March and that there are other factors to consider other than the suppression of the virus.

“If we needed to consider nothing other than the suppression of the virus, if we didn’t need to consider the entire of the country, then clearly one could make an argument that says well everyone just needs to go home, close down businesses, don’t leave your house.

“And obviously we know that the virus would be suppressed. But we have to make what we believe is the best decision on behalf of the entire country, that is what we have done.”

He said that Level 3 measures have been shown to work “when we all work hard to put them in place”.

Also speaking ahead of the Cabinet meeting was Green Party leader Eamon Ryan who said the Government had made the right decision not to go to Level 5. His colleague, Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien, said the Cabinet struck the right balance “between the economy and public health”.

He asked the Opposition not to “politicise” the matter.

Meanwhile public health expert Dr Gabriel Scally has said that the “public spat” between Mr Varadkar and the team is “unedifying”.

Emergency medicine consultant Dr Chris Luke said medics shouldn’t be running any country. While they have a great deal of medical advice to offer “you need a 360 degree range of expertise coming to Government”.

He added that due to Covid-19 restrictions there had been a “shrinkage of the footprint of every emergency department, which means that there’s less space to see people within emergency departments and outpatient clinics and in addition you’ve got the threat of the virus itself hanging over everybody”.