Covid-19: Emergency public health powers extended until November

Minister asking for ‘blank cheque’ in absence of sunset clause on pandemic measures, Dáil hears

Emergency public health powers including additional Garda powers introduced to deal with Covid-19 have been extended until November.

All Opposition parties and Independents voted against the measure in the Dáil but the extension was passed by 73 votes to 68 with no abstentions. It was passed in the Seanad last week.

The Government faced cross-party Opposition criticism that it was using the Oireachtas as a “rubber stamp” for these “extraordinary measures”.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly amended his legislation to extend the powers until November after which they can be rolled over for a further three months, but will not go beyond February next year.


But TDs told the Minister he was asking for a “blank cheque” as parties introduced unsuccessful amendments for a July or September sunset clause on the legislation, with a full review and comprehensive justification for any further rollout.

Rural Independent TDs called for no further extension of the powers that include provision for a widespread ban on travel and events, and powers to permit gardaí entry to a person’s home in certain circumstances.

Government TDs have previously expressed misgivings at the extension of the powers including Fine Gael parliamentary party chairman Richard Bruton who warned against the “lazy use of exceptional powers”.

In the Dáil debate on the Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill Social Democrats TD Róisín Shortall said there was no justification “for the automatic rollover of these powers”.

Her party would support a six-week extension of the measures if the Minister came back on July 14th with a reassessment of the situation.

“That is a reasonable request to make given all the country has been through, given all the concerns that exist with these powers and given all the limitations these powers put on people’s lives and the erosion of basic human rights as a result.”

Her party colleague Catherine Murphy said the Minister was asking people to give a “blank cheque” to very serious powers.

Ms Murphy and Regional Independent TD Denis Naughten asked the Minister at the start of the debate if he was prepared to accept any of the amendments.

Mr Donnelly said he wanted to debate each amendment on its merits.

But in the total of three hours allotted for the debate just three of the 60 amendments to the Bill were debated and none was accepted by Government.

Opposition TDs spoke for the entire debate with no time left for the Minister to reply and all amendments fell automatically when the discussion was guillotined.

Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane said the emergency powers and public health measures were necessary at the height of the pandemic but the Minister could not expect the Opposition to continually extend emergency powers that are “quite extraordinary” and which have “never been given to a Minister before in terms of their magnitude”.

Labour party leader Alan Kelly told the Minister that when the legislation was debated in the Seanad “you failed to give a satisfactory explanation” about why the powers should be extended.

He said there was a “completely contradiction” in the Government’s actions when 80 per cent of the population would have received a vaccine by the end of June or shortly afterwards; indoor dining returns in July; the Government is cutting pandemic payments from September, the emergency powers remain in place.

Independent TD Mattie McGrath told the Minister he was “truly shocked that you’re persisting with this” and claimed the Government is “exercising coercive powers on an unprecedented basis”.

He said the “war” was over and it was time to give up these powers “but you don’t want to”.

Aontú TD Peadar Tóibín said there was a deadly new Covid-19 variant – the “Dáil variant” which he claimed was deadly to common sense. “He said there should be an end to any further extension.”

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times