“Unprecedented actions to respond to an unprecedented emergency,” exclaims Taoiseach Varadkar in announcing the government’s next steps to combat the further spread of Covid-19. As of Thursday the 30th of March, there are over 2,910 confirmed cases of the virus and 54 deaths in the State, figures that have been consistently on the rise. The European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) has warned that there is a high-risk that EU healthcare systems will be overwhelmed in the coming weeks; a particular concern for Ireland which has just 5.6 ICU beds per 100,000 people, just half of the EU average.
The pandemic has caused the Irish legislature to enact exceptional provisions in relation to the “grave risk to human life and public health.” Statute that would typically take weeks to progress, is being passed in mere days. The government primarily aims to prevent further spreading of the virus whilst mitigating the economic loss it bears.
The Health (Preservation and Protection and Other Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 broadly empowers the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, to make regulation to slow the spread of the infectious disease, including travel limitations in and out of Ireland, prohibition of public gatherings and requirements for owners and occupiers of premises to enforce safeguards, including the implementation of social distancing. An “affected area order” can be declared for the hardest hit regions of the country which will allow for strict internal travel restrictions to be enforced. Furthermore, A chief medical officer may order that a person considered a probable source of infection be detained and isolated for as long as the medical officer believes is necessary.
The Gardaí have also been entrusted with broad powers to ensure compliance with these regulations and have been issued with ‘spit hoods,’ in light of recent public backlash. It will be a punishable offence by up to €2,500 or 6-months imprisonment to contravene any such regulations that would cause further risk to public health, although it is hoped that these measures will not have to be taken.
The statute also makes amendments to our social welfare legislation. Social welfare is now acquired once every fortnight to encourage social distancing and entitlement to disability payments are extended to those who are incapable of working due to a Covid-19 diagnosis. Those who have become been laid-off since the outbreak are entitled to a €350 Pandemic Unemployment Support payment. This payment is to run a pending 12-week cycle and is reported to cost the State roughly €3.7 billion.
Negotiations on the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Bill is currently being carried out by the Oireachtas regarding the planning of temporary medical centres, rent freezes, temporary ban on evictions, mental health tribunals and Health and Defence recruitment.
Rob Ó Beacháin – Law Editor