New legislation required to extend emergency Covid powers beyond February

Emergency powers to implement Covid-19 restrictions will be extended until November
New legislation required to extend emergency Covid powers beyond February

By James Ward, PA

New laws will be required to extend Covid-19 emergency powers beyond February next year, the Minister for Health has said.

Emergency powers to implement Covid-19 restrictions are to be extended until November, with the possibility of a three-month extension until February next year.

Stephen Donnelly told the Dáil that any extension beyond next spring would require a new resolution to be voted through both houses of the Oireachtas.

Mr Donnelly said the November date has been informed by public health advice, with officials of the view the measures “may well be required into late autumn or early winter”.

But Sinn Féin warned the Government will not continue to receive “a blank cheque” for their Covid response.

The Minister also told the Dáil he met with chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan on Wednesday, in relation to advice on reopening plans to be discussed by Cabinet on Friday.

Mr Donnelly said the CMO had told him the National Public Health Emergency Team’s (Nphet) view is that the trajectory of the diseases is “positive.”

'Proportionate'

In response to criticism of the Health and Criminal Justice Covid-19 Amendment Bill 2021 in both the Seanad and the Health Committee, Mr Donnelly said an extension to November was “warranted, necessary and proportionate.”

He added: “We do need these emergency powers to unwind the measures that are currently in place in an orderly and sustainable way.

“I feel that allowing one further extension of no more than three months is justified and proportionate.

“If we do find ourselves in the position, which we all dearly hope not to be in, whereby we need some targeted public health measures beyond February of next year, we will introduce another Bill and put it through the safeguards that the legislative process provides.”

They are due to expire on June 9th, with a five-month extension now proposed until November 9th.

Mr Donnelly agreed to amend a proposal that would have allowed the powers to be rolled over every three months beyond November 9th.

The emergency powers allow the State to detain people to stop the spread of the virus, restrict travel, require people to wear face coverings and prohibit some events such as large gatherings taking place.

'Extreme' powers

At a meeting of the Health Committee on Tuesday, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) warned it is “deeply concerned” about the Government’s extension of “extreme” Covid-19 emergency powers.

Mr Donnelly said he had heard the criticisms of the Bill, and as such had chosen to allow for only one three month extension beyond November, with new legislation required for additional health measures beyond that point.

Mr Donnelly said the measures were necessary to protect the health service and break the chain of transmission of the disease.

“The incidence of Covid-19 is still high, though, as I said it is stable. There are still considerable uncertainties around what measures may be needed over the course of the rest of this year,” he added.

'Draconian'

Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane said the days of Government being given a “blank cheque” on such legislation are gone.

He said he was not in a position to say if his party would support the Bill, and signalled he will table amendments.

He told the Dáil: “As you pointed out, this Bill is draconian.

“It does give you extraordinary powers and we’re being asked to give you those powers to go and make regulations, which we then have no ability to either scrutinise or have a say over, or indeed, even evaluate at any time.

“So for all of those reasons, we need to be assured that the Minister has listened, has engaged, and that the voices of the Opposition are not only heard, but taken into account in relation to the Bill.

“The days of giving you as a Minister, or anybody else, a blank check in relation to these responses have long gone.

“If you were in my position, I would imagine that you would argue the same.”

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