The Irish Times view on emergency Covid-19 powers: the need for closer scrutiny

The State’s extraordinary powers to regulate people’s movement should be reviewed at more regular intervals

Agents of the State can ban events, issue stay-at-home orders and impose sweeping restrictions on freedom of movement. Photograph: Joe Dunne

Agents of the State can ban events, issue stay-at-home orders and impose sweeping restrictions on freedom of movement. Photograph: Joe Dunne

 

The extraordinary and far-reaching powers the State currently holds to regulate the behaviour of the public would usually be unthinkable in a time of peace. Agents of the State can ban events, issue stay-at-home orders and impose sweeping restrictions on freedom of movement. Those powers were deemed necessary to protect the public from a deadly disease, and throughout the pandemic the vast majority of people have been willing to accept them, sacrificing some of their personal freedoms in the interests of public health.

Yet to agree that these exceptional powers have been necessary is not to accept that they ought to be extended indefinitely, still less become the norm. Far from it. They must continually be reviewed. Their impact on the rights of individuals must constantly be assessed. And Government must ensure that they are lifted as soon as it is safe to do so – and no later.

The emergency Covid-19 legislation is due to lapse on June 9th. In the Dáil this week, TDs have been debating a Government proposal to extend it to November 9th, with provision for one further three-month extension and an assurance that the law will end by February next year.

There is a good case to be made for extending these powers. While the pandemic is slowly being brought under control, it still poses very real dangers to the public, and the emergence of new variants, unexpected delays in the vaccination programme or a premature return to indoor activities could all set progress back. However, it is also true that the rapid progress on vaccination is improving the outlook weekly, which has enabled parts of society to reopen ahead of many people’s expectations. In that context, November 9th is a long way away. It would make more sense to review the special powers at shorter intervals. Moreover, it should be possible – and certainly it would be desirable – to attempt to distinguish between powers. Not all may need to be renewed, yet the current proposal involves simply reinstating the entire panoply of measures and in effect allowing them to roll over. That’s not good enough.

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