Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Bill 2020: Second Stage

20 March 2020

I would like to welcome the Minister, Deputy Harris, to the House. Along with so many others, I express my sincere sympathies to those who have been so terribly affected by this horrific virus, and in particular to the families of the three people in this jurisdiction and the four people on this island who have sadly died, to the 557 individuals in this jurisdiction and the 634 individuals on this island who have been diagnosed with Covid-19, to their families and to all of those affected. I would also like to express my solidarity and that of the Labour Party with everyone else who has been affected by the coronavirus, particularly those who have lost businesses or jobs - and we know many thousands are facing real economic hardship as a result of the crisis. I also express solidarity with those who are on the front line in providing services, particularly with the healthcare workers and the amazing 30,000 or so people who have volunteered to support the health services and to be on call and I know the Minister has commended them. I mention all of those who are offering community spirit. We are seeing immense social solidarity being expressed in communities all over this island. That has been important in buoying up everyone over this time. I also want to express solidarity with so many others internationally, particularly in Italy, China, Spain and all of the countries that have been so badly affected and from where we are hearing awful reports of the terrible impact of the virus. I want to pay tribute to the Minister, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste - who was here earlier - and to all of those in government who have shown immense leadership in this short period.

I think it is only 20 days since the first case was diagnosed here in Ireland. The Minister for Health has shown immense leadership and all of those in the national public health emergency team, in particular Dr. Tony Holohan, and Mr. Paul Reid and all in the HSE have also shown immense leadership, courage and decisiveness. I know others have spoken in this House and elsewhere of the impact of the Taoiseach's statement on St. Patrick's Day. It was very important and uplifting, yet it was a very serious reminder of the stark reality of what we are facing, that this is only the calm before the storm and that we need to be prepared to take every measure we can to prevent the awful scaling up we have seen in other countries.

In opening this debate, the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, spoke with immense eloquence of the importance of social distancing and adhering to HSE guidelines. I agree that all of us in this House and the other House must keep repeating that message and keep practising these important measures to prevent the spread of the virus. The Tánaiste made a statement about this Bill which I thought really sums up what we all feel about it. He said it is a temporary measure that he hopes we do not need but he suspects we might. That is the reality of the context in which we debate this Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Bill 2020.

As Deputies Brendan Howlin and Alan Kelly did in the Dáil, I speak to support the Bill, which is a vital part of the national effort to overcome the outbreak. I know it contains measures which are draconian and which we would never contemplate passing in normal times, but which have been advised by the national public health emergency team and which, therefore, we must support. I am very glad we have a sunset clause. That was an amendment that we in the Labour Party had put down, and others also spoke in favour of it in the Dáil last night. I am glad to see it is now in the Bill, which is very important. I thank the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and others who raised this issue and who followed the Dáil debate so closely.

I am also glad that the other substantive issue we had dealt with in a Labour Party amendment in the Dáil has been promised to be dealt with, namely, the issue of evictions and protections for tenants. As we will see other legislation on that next week, we have not put forward amendments to the Bill today.

I want to raise a couple of issues with the Minister. With regard to Part 2 and the social protection measures, a key issue for employers and employees is the one that has been flagged by Senator Clifford-Lee and also with me by employers, that is, whether they can pay more than the €203 per week provided for in the pandemic unemployment payment without losing their entitlement to recoup that €203 per week. This is very urgent for employers who are facing the prospect of having to put people on short-time working or let people go temporarily, they hope, and who wish to keep paying full wages. Clearly, it is in everyone's interest that they do so. However, it appears from reports today that they are going to be disincentivised because they will lose the right to recoup the €203. I have asked for the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to address this matter urgently as I would like to see clarity for employers and employees.

Part 3 of the Bill deals with the extraordinary powers on detention provided for in section 11. In the Dáil, Deputy Howlin raised the issue about the difference in terminology between "probable source of infection" in Part 2 and "potential source of infection" in Part 3. I believe that is dealt with by the text of subsection (10) of section 38A, the new section of the 1947 Act inserted in section 11. It is my reading that this subsection deals with the point and outlines the reason for the difference in terminology, so I am satisfied with that.

There are other issues around section 11, however, which, as we know, brings in a new section 38A of the 1947 Act to allow for the forced detention of persons who will not self-isolate. Again, we accept reluctantly that this measure may be necessary and we welcome the sunset clause. However, we do have some issues in respect of the tests for detention. In subsection (1), the test is that the medical officer must believe that the detention is "appropriate". I wonder should there be tighter language, such as "necessary" or in regard to providing for "reasonable grounds". There is a slight concern that the wording and threshold are somewhat vague compared with the normal threshold required where a power of detention is provided for.

Subsection (4) gives 14 days as the period in which a medical examination must be carried out. Again, I believe this language could be slightly tighter.

Subsections (5) and (6) very importantly will provide for the review triggered at the request of the detained person. I believe that an omission here is the lack of provision to require that persons would be informed of this right. I hope this can be dealt with through ministerial regulation rather than necessarily in the text of the statute. I believe it is an important point and, if the person is a child, a parent or guardian should be also informed of the right to review. There is a children's protection issue there.

There could be a separate provision for a review by another medical officer within 28 days of the detention. To go beyond the incubation period would require a review, whether triggered by a request or not. Those are some additional safeguards that could be provided for.

I also have a concern that we have not seen the terms of the order that has to be signed by the medical officer to authorise the detention. I have a draft available, and I thank my colleague in the Law Library, Tony McGillicuddy, for making that available. I can also make it available. The term "medical officer" is not defined in the section itself but is defined in the primary Health Act 1947. That, however, has been amended since. Perhaps greater clarity on that definition could be provided for us.

There are other issues that arise, about which I will make some brief points. I accept that these issues cannot be dealt with in this legislation but they may need to be dealt with. Some people, for example, may require to get married. If they are in long-term relationships some people may wish to get married, perhaps in extremis. Perhaps we could look at waiving the normal notice period or making it easier to get a waiver in place. This may be for a slightly later date.

There is also the point raised by Senator Michael McDowell and Deputy Brendan Howlin this morning. There are many public agency deadlines that are not related to health such as driver licence renewal and residency permit and work permit renewals that require people to appear in person at State offices. Let us put in some law a general postponement of three or six months of such deadlines to ensure that all of us, but especially older people, do not have to appear in person at State offices. I am conscious that passport renewals can be done online but many others, such as driver licence renewals, currently require a personal appearance.

I once again commend the Minister, Deputy Harris and his Government on their leadership. All of us are doing all we can to ensure the messages get out about public health and prevention. All of us are dealing with very anxious people. I have dealt with a number of Trinity College students and alumni who are stuck abroad. I have spoken with the Tánaiste about ensuring that Irish citizens can get home if they are currently stuck abroad. All of us know this is a really unprecedented time, we are all facing unprecedented challenges and it looks as though things will get so much worse. In that context we are supporting this extraordinary legislation.