Former minister questions need for some of ‘extraordinary’ Covid-19 powers

Need to look more forensically at exceptional measures, says Richard Bruton

TD Richard Bruton said some of these powers were truly exceptional but acknowledged that ‘we have been living through the most exceptional of circumstances’. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

TD Richard Bruton said some of these powers were truly exceptional but acknowledged that ‘we have been living through the most exceptional of circumstances’. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

 

A former government minister has questioned the necessity of some of the “extraordinary” emergency powers the Government has in place to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Fine Gael TD and chairman of the parliamentary party Richard Bruton said there was a need to look more forensically at these exceptional measures to distinguish which ones continue to be necessary.

Warning against a “lazy use of exceptional powers” because of a lack of necessary scrutiny, Mr Bruton said they had to ensure they were not being casually enforced.

The Dublin Bay North TD said some of these powers were truly exceptional but acknowledged that “we have been living through the most exceptional of circumstances”.

However he said “we need to start thinking about how do we gradually unwind” these measures. He had “a little bit of misgiving” that “every one of these powers seems to be being reinstated even though the conditions have perhaps changed”.

Mr Bruton was speaking during a Dáil debate on legislation to extend emergency provisions including powers for gardaí from June 9th to November 9th, with provision for one further three months extension and an assurance they will end by February next year.

The former minister said extraordinary progress had been made including through the vaccination programme and the risks associated with the virus had changed “dramatically”.

He said the 14-day incidence of coronavirus is currently 0.1 per cent which means that “99.9 per cent of people over the last 14 days have not been positive for Covid and less than 1 per cent of hospital beds are occupied by people with Covid”.

The emergency powers include a widespread ban on travel, a ban on events, and powers that permit gardaí entry to a person’s home in certain circumstances.

Tribunal terms

Mr Bruton also expressed concern about the changed terms under which mental health tribunals operate including remote hearings which allow for the detention and isolation of individuals.

Pointing to the current environment, he believed that the operation of tribunals on the basis of remote assessment “go to the heart of how fair a process can be for an individual.

“While they may have been justified and may continue to be justified there is no doubt that we’re moving into a period when the justification for them is a great deal less.”

He suggested the need for more demanding thresholds to continue the use of such powers and where more intrusive measures are being used a record should be kept with a timely review to ensure people are not “slipping into a lazy use of exceptional powers”.

Opening the debate the Minister said the measures were necessary until November 9th “given the current uncertain trajectory of the disease globally and the priority need to protect public health”. He said that after that there would only be one further three months extension until next February.

However he said he had met the Chief Medical Officer and the view of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) is that “the trajectory is positive”, signalling the green light for further easing of restrictions.

Mr Donnelly insisted however that while the emergency powers were “draconian” he believed they were required and were “proportionate”.

But Independent TD Verona Murphy said there had been too many examples where the powers were used beyond what was reasonable. She cited Mr Donnelly saying priests would not be punished for saying mass “only for that very thing to happen just a few weeks later”.

Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane said it did not make sense when restrictions are being eased to extend emergency powers until November and his party wants the extension to end in July.

Labour TD Duncan Smith said the November 9th date did not seem logical “at this remove” and said there should be a review on a month by month basis.

Social Democrats joint leader Róisín Shortall said she did not want “to jettison all these measures” but called instead for a review to be completed within six weeks, amend the legislation before the summer recess roll over only the powers considered absolutely necessary.

Fianna Fail TD Cathal Crowe said that on January 12th there were 8,200 Covid-19 cases while the number on Tuesday was about 400. “The two situations are not comparable and our State’s response should also not be the same,” he said.

People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy said it was “rule by decree” for the Minister with no review of their operation or proper oversight by the Dáil.

Debate on the legislation continues.