"Lighter touch" public health measures could still be necessary in autumn and winter, says Stephen Donnelly
"I described the powers as draconian, I still think they are draconian, and I think this bill is draconian."
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has said that "lighter touch public health measures", such as wearing a mask in public settings, could still be necessary in Ireland in autumn and winter, by which time a large portion of the population will have received the Covid-19 vaccine.
Speaking in the Seanad on Monday about the extension of emergency powers relating to Covid-19, Donnelly said that the bill was a "very unwelcome" but "necessary" piece of legislation.
The Minister added that while he still thinks the powers are "draconian" in nature, he is asking for people to support them.
"I described the powers as draconian, I still think they are draconian, and I think this bill is draconian. There's no question about it," he told the Seanad.
"Legislation like this, and powers like this, should never sit easily in any democracy, and they certainly should never sit easily in our Republic.
"We must handle them with the utmost care and caution. They don't sit easily with me.
"For what is hopefully a very short period of time, they are necessary, which is why I'm standing here, which is why I'm proposing them and why I'm asking the house to support them."
When questioned by opposition on the powers being extended until 9 November, the Minister added that there is "no right answer" when it comes to the removal of the powers.
Donnelly noted that the public health team had suggested the November date due to an increase in indoor gatherings around that time.
"There is no right answer. I don't think there is a correct date, the 9 November is no more correct than a week or two before that or after that," he said.
"We did, however, check with public health in terms of the broad timing of this. How much time do we believe we need, given where we're at with the epidemic, given where we're at with the variants, given where we're at with international travel and critically, with the vaccine programme.
"My hope is that we don't have to exercise any of them, but if we do, that they're lighter touch measures like having to wear masks in particular in higher-touch environments, or if there are local outbreaks."
Donnelly added that the legislation is "brutal" but necessary to protect people's "right to health".
Last week it was announced that the emergency pandemic legislation, including additional Garda powers and the extension of the mandatory hotel quarantine system, was set to be extended until 9 November under a request made by the Health Minister.
The Health and Criminal Justice Bill of 2021, which was due to run out in June, was brought to Cabinet last Tuesday as Minister Donnelly got approval from Ministers to extend the laws.
The extension of the powers will also apply to fines for not wearing face masks and large gatherings.
The extension of the powers doesn't mean that the measures will remain in place until November, but gives the Government the ability to continue them until a time when they are no longer deemed necessary.
The extension will have to be approved by both the Dáil and Seanad.
New powers were introduced last year in support of the public health restrictions on movement and gatherings.
The powers were introduced under section 31A of the Health Act of 1947, as inserted by the Health Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act of 2020.
The purpose of these powers was said to be the protection of public health during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said earlier this month that there will be "full scrutiny" and a "full Dáil debate" ahead of any Government proposal to extend emergency powers over the coming weeks.