The State needs to be able to impose emergency public health restrictions into late autumn or early winter, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has said as the Seanad debated extending them until November 9th.
Mr Donnelly said the wearing of masks into winter may be necessary in “higher-risk environments” or if there are local outbreaks of Covid-19 or of variants.
He added that “it will be some time yet before there is a sufficient level of the entire population fully vaccinated” and information was “incomplete” on the impact of variants on the vaccines.
The Minister was speaking during a Seanad debate on Monday on amending legislation to allow Covid-19 restrictions be re-imposed quickly if deemed necessary.
He said “we are ahead of the best-case scenario” that had been predicted and “we are in a good position” as the Government prepares to outline its proposals on Friday for further easing of restrictions and the re-opening of international travel.
The Government backs the digital green certification plan and “people who are fully vaccinated can travel” not just in the EU but “with partner countries outside the EU as well”, he added. It would mean “no home quarantine” on return from such travel.
Mr Donnelly said he hoped the emergency public health measures would not be necessary but if they were it would be the “lighter touch measures” including wearing masks that might be required.
The Minister said “we have made significant progress in suppressing the spread of this virus but we are not out of the woods yet and he warned that the trajectory of the Covid-19 virus is “precarious”.
He also said there is considerable uncertainty over what measures would be needed for the rest of the year.
The Seanad voted by 29 to three to pass the second stage of the legislation to extend the ability of the State to impose restrictions at short notice until November 9th and then to extend them every three months by a resolution of the Seanad and Dáil.
While Government as well as opposition Senators criticised the measures, just three Senators – Independents Michael McDowell, Sharon Keogan and Rónán Mullen – voted against them.
Green Party Senator Vincent P Martin disagreed that the restrictions should be extended to November and said "we need to move away from draconian restrictions and reclaim our sense of freedom and autonomy. We must harness hope and let optimism triumph over pessimism."
Fine Gael Senator Barry Ward said the Government had missed the opportunity to address amendments in the legislation, “that simply do not work”, including errors linked to Garda powers to deal with house parties.
Mr McDowell called for “political courage” to ensure that every Senator, TD and their staff were vaccinated as quickly as possible so that “we can resume normal business and have normal scrutiny of parliamentary activity as the Constitution requires”.
Labour Senator Annie Hoey called for a human rights analysis of the restrictions and said the measures should not be renewed "without vigorous debate and scrutiny".
Sinn Féin Senator Niall O Donnghaile said the Minister should return to the House in late June or July to seek to extend the powers if necessary as part of an overall strategy because "we don't see a clear plan coming from the Government yet".
Ms Keogan said the open-endedness of the Bill meant the restrictions “may be permitted by law on a continual and potentially perpetual basis” which she said was no longer “necessary or proportionate”.