The Irish Times view on Covid-19 laws and guidance: an unacceptable blurring of lines
The Government must do a better job of explaining people’s legal obligations
A deserted Parliament Street in Dublin on Monday. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
On Monday the Government changed its public health guidance, easing a number of measures that were in place to help reduce transmission of Covid-19. But most citizens would be hard pressed to say which of these or any other coronavirus restrictions are legal requirements and which are advice. It’s a problem the Government is making worse with what is at best a strikingly careless approach to communicating these important measures.
Official documents state that “no visitors are permitted in private homes or gardens”, implying that staying out of other people’s gardens is a legal obligation when it fact is it not. On March 31st, the Government announced that with immediate effect that vaccinated people could meet with other vaccinated people indoors. However, as Prof Oran Doyle and Prof David Kenny from the law school at Trinity College Dublin pointed out, it remained a criminal offence for almost two weeks after that to invite people from another household to visit your home even if everyone involved had been vaccinated. In other words, the Government was advising people they could do something for which they could be prosecuted.
On other occasions, different arms of the State cannot agree on the legal status of restrictions. This was the case with the holding of religious services, which the Minister of Health last October said was not a criminal offence even while gardaí continued to prosecute people for it.
Inside Politics / covid vaccine / April 7th
This is now a well-established pattern. A report for the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, produced by the Covid-19 Law and Human Rights Observatory at Trinity, found that all through the pandemic Government communications have blurred the distinction between law or regulations and public health advice. Many older people believed they were legally required to “cocoon” last year, and a bizarre situation unfolded in which the gardaí and other State agencies used their powers to enforce guidance.
Even now, the State is still creating needless confusion. As Doyle points out, the guidance for the latest easing of restrictions does not mention that “fully vaccinated” in the context of indoors meetings means (as the regulation states) fully vaccinated by the HSE programme, meaning the exemption does not apply to anyone inoculated in Northern Ireland or overseas.
None of this is to take issue with specific measures. Any reasonable observer would accept that extraordinary restrictions were needed to stem the spread of the virus, and that they have saved many lives. But good communications is even more vital when the stakes are this high, and when the volume and nature of the restrictions reduces the ability of the Oireachtas to scrutinise them. It’s a basic principle of the rule of law, and essential to public trust, that citizens should be left in no doubt as to their legal obligations.