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Justice Minister says new Garda powers will be used as ‘last resort’

The coronavirus death toll rose to 235 in Ireland on Wednesday, with 25 further deaths reported.

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Gardai stop and question people at a checkpoint on O’Connell Street in Dublin (Niall Carson/PA)

Gardai stop and question people at a checkpoint on O’Connell Street in Dublin (Niall Carson/PA)

Gardai stop and question people at a checkpoint on O’Connell Street in Dublin (Niall Carson/PA)

New laws to enforce compliance with coronavirus restrictions will only be used as a “last resort”, Ireland’s Justice Minister has said.

Charlie Flanagan said there would be no automatic rollover of the powers when their initial period of implementation ends after the Easter weekend.

The regulations have been introduced amid reports of increasing numbers out in the streets and fears that people may be tempted to disregard social distancing rules over the Easter holiday.

The laws will give gardai the power to arrest and fine people up to 2,500 euro if they fail to comply with their instructions upon detection of a breach of social distancing rules.

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Charlie Flanagan said the enforcement powers would be used as a last resort (Brian Lawless/PA)

Charlie Flanagan said the enforcement powers would be used as a last resort (Brian Lawless/PA)

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Charlie Flanagan said the enforcement powers would be used as a last resort (Brian Lawless/PA)

Those found guilty could also receive a prison sentence of up to six months.

The coronavirus death toll in Ireland rose to 235 on Wednesday, with 25 further deaths reported in the previous 24 hours.

A further 365 new cases of coronavirus were confirmed, taking the total since the outbreak began to 6,074.

The National Public Health Emergency Team will make a recommendation later this week on whether to extend the lockdown on public movement in Ireland beyond Easter Sunday.

Asked if the enforcement powers will be extended into next week if the restrictions continue, Mr Flanagan told RTE radio: “There won’t be an automatic rollover (of the laws) but there will be careful consideration given at that point in accordance with the public health advice from Dr Tony Holohan and his team.

“They are a last resort. They do comprise restrictions on liberty of a type that we haven’t seen before but they do amount to a response to the emergency situation that we are in. The vast majority of people in the country have nothing to fear here.

“It is not envisaged that these laws will be widely used. What they are there for is a deterrent primarily and a reassurance to the vast majority of people in this country that their health and wellbeing is being protected in these difficult times.”

Ireland’s health minister Simon Harris signed the beefed-up regulations on Tuesday night and said he expects gardai to use their new powers sparingly.

Gardai had been relying on their existing public order powers since the current strict limitations on movement were ordered by the Government 11 days ago.

The Government had held off signing the new regulations, with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar saying he only wanted to do so if “absolutely necessary”.

Mr Harris asked people not to travel to holiday homes this weekend and warned against public complacency about the measures.

“Now is not the time for any complacency whatsoever,” he said. “It is difficult and challenging to stay at home. I’m conscious of parents with kids, particularly children with autism.

“These are big challenges for people but they are not as significant and challenging as the problems we could face if we don’t stay the course.

“We are seeing what is happening with other countries regarding the death toll and we cannot allow that to happen here.”

A special Garda operation will see additional checkpoints on the roads and extra patrols at parks and beauty spots.

The regulations come into operation on Wednesday but expire on Easter Sunday.

Mr Harris said that while efforts are being stepped up to prevent the spread of coronavirus in nursing homes, they continue to be an area of concern.

“It (the battle) is certainly not being lost but there are pressures in our nursing home sector and they are doing really good work.

“We are also sending in teams of staff to our nursing homes to help supplement their efforts as well.

“I think we need to be clear about a cluster in a nursing home because that means two or more cases. It wouldn’t be unusual that you would see an outbreak of a virus like this in our nursing homes.”

He said agency staff are not allowed to move between nursing homes in case they potentially spread the virus and additional protective equipment has been given to nursing home employees.

“There’s a massive amount of work going on in nursing homes – every nursing home should have an infection liaison officer and someone they can link in with strictly in relation to the plan,” he said.

“It is right to point out that a serious concern in our public health battle is in long-term residential settings.”

PA