Emergency Covid-19 powers will end in February 2022, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly says

‘Draconian’ measures criticised by members of the Opposition

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly faced Opposition pressure in the Seanad on Tuesday. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly faced Opposition pressure in the Seanad on Tuesday. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly is to amend legislation on emergency public health powers to ensure they do not go extend beyond February next year.

He faced opposition pressure in the Seanad over the original plan to continue the Covid-19 powers until November 9th and then every three months after that by a resolution of the Dáil.

But he told Senators he would bring a proposal to Government that after the November extension, the emergency measures can only be rolled over for a maximum of another three months up to February 2022.

Mr Donnelly added that “if we do find ourselves in a position somehow where we would need some targeted public health measures past next February, we will introduce another Bill”.

Expressing the hope that the emergency powers to restrict movements and activities would not be needed beyond February, the Minister stressed the importance of unwinding these measures in a sustainable way.

He acknowledged that the measures, contained in four pieces of legislation, are “draconian”.

“They don’t sit well with me and they shouldn’t sit well in any healthy democracy,” he said.

Sinn Féin Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile said the Minister had “such draconian powers” that these measures should only be extended until July and then it should be brought back for full scrutiny by the Seanad and Dáil.

Independent Senator Sharon Keogan said the justification for these measures “no longer exists” and the impact the continuation of the lockdown measures would mean that the provisions “do more harm than good”.

She said the powers should be extended no longer than September because after that it could no longer be claimed to be lawful because the powers were “interfering with the rights of individuals”.

The legislation was passed in the Seanad by 29 votes to four and now goes to the Dáil, after four opposition amendments were rejected.

Meanwhile, Opposition parties have said they will oppose the Government’s proposals to extend Covid-19 emergency powers unless it makes significant amendments.

The Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) Bill is scheduled for second-stage debate in the Dáil on Wednesday. It proposes that emergency power continue in existence for a further five months beyond the current end date of June 10th, until November 9th this year.

That would allow a continuation of the extensive emergency powers that An Garda Síochána and other State agencies have been given during the pandemic period.

One provision of the amendment would have allowed the renewal of the powers every three months by the Government, without review, but that part of the Bill was withdrawn by Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly on Tuesday, during the Seanad debate on the legislation.

The Government has argued that notwithstanding the success of the vaccine programme, the State is still in the throes of the outbreak.

It has contended the extension is in the public interest having regard to the continuing manifest and grave risk to human life and public health posed by the spread of the disease known as Covid-19 (in addition to new variants, including the Indian variant).

Ahead of the Bill coming before the Dáil on Wednesday, a series of Opposition parties signalled on Tuesday they would oppose the Bill as it is currently constituted.

“It has very extensive powers,” said Róisín Shortall of the Social Democrats. “We propose a short extension, a six week extension to enable a review to take place. We could come back to the Dáil to consider that review and consider what extension is required.

“We had been promised a review. There is no analysis of the operation of the powers (of the Act),” she said.

“The Government has not been engaging with the opposition at all in relation to any aspect of Covid. There has not been any briefing of the Opposition since last December. It’s impossible to do business like that,” she said.

A number of Government TDs accused Ms Shortall of “flip-flopping” over her call for a shorter extension to the emergency powers legislation, given her strong advocacy for a zero covid approach until now.

Fine Gael TD Charles Flanagan, in a tweet, said Ms Shorthall had done “a backward political somersault and cartwheel flip-flop rolled into one”.

He said Ms Shortall had made a “quite breathtaking volte face even by Social Democrats standards”.

Senator Lisa Chambers of Fianna Fáil

posted a tweet claiming Ms Shortall was involved in flipflop politics. “A few weeks ago Róisín Shortall and the Social Democrats were calling for Zero Covid and harsher and tougher restrictions and now because that’s no longer possible they have completely flipped,” she said.

Brendan Howlin of the Labour Party said the five-month extension was too long.

“We supported the legislation to date because it is necessary to protect public health,”?he said.

“We propose to the Government now that the current legal framework could be extended, but to September, (to allow for) the Dáil (being) in recess until the middle of July.

“It is reasonable that all these powers will be gone in September. If there is a compelling reason for it to go beyond September we should review that on a monthly basis,” he said.

Gino Kenny of People Before Profit said his party opposed the automatic renewal of the three-month extensions and also said he was concerned that the laws would interfere with the rights of assembly, including rallies and protests.

Mattie McGrath of the Rural Alliance also expressed opposition to the continuation of the powers.

“This is the three card trick again. They now have conflated it with two other pieces of justice legislation. They are really taking the public for fools. They are taking us for fools altogether,” he said.