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Let’s face it: These new Garda powers are absurd

If one was to sit down and draw up a list of things related to the Coronavirus for which somebody in Ireland should be arrested and prosecuted, there are a few things you might put on it.

For starters, there was the decision to allow flights from Northern Italy to keep landing in the country for several weeks after our first case of the virus on these shores, and long after it was apparent that the crisis in Northern Italy was reaching devastating proportions. But they kept coming, and that’s how we ended up with a hundred or more initial cases “associated with travel”, in the official HSE lexicon. If you were being harsh, you could call that criminal negligence.

Indeed at the time, when there were massive concerns over public health, and when asked about it, Simon Harris said “freedom of movement is paramount”. Is it, Simon? Let’s come back to that.

Then there was the decision to tell nursing homes and hospitals to lift visitor bans. You might remember that at the time, this was the only media outlet to call it madness. And madness it was:

How many elderly people are sick, or dead, because the Government told the places that care for them to allow infected members of the public to come in and cough all over them? We don’t know, but it’s one of the easier lines to draw in this whole mess.

Then there was the Cheltenham saga. To be fair, the Government did not have the power to cancel Cheltenham, because it’s a UK event, but it did have the power to impose restrictions and self-isolation and quarantine for those returning. It did not. There are now several clusters of cases directly associated with Cheltenham.

And our doctors and nurses? Crying out for Personal Protective Equipment, and for weeks they couldn’t get it. Some still cannot. The Government isn’t fully responsible for that problem, of course, but they are responsible for lying about it. This is what the HSE told the Irish Times on March 10th:

The HSE told The Irish Times that it had an “adequate stock of critical supplies all across the country” despite “the challenges of a volatile market”.

The health service has said it has made a significant investment, more than €27 million to date, on a range of products, including protective equipment.

More than four million masks, both surgical and respiratory, have been secured by the health service and more than €20 million has been invested in protective equipment, the HSE said.

More than 3,500 “PPE packs” have been distributed to GPs, public health departments and primary care centres, according to the health service.

There’s only one word for that: Bullshit.

So, the Government allowed infected people in, banned nursing homes from banning visitors, lied about the amount of PPE it had, refused to quarantine the infected…… but the good news is that they’ve finally identified the real villains:

But speaking on RTE’s Prime Time programme tonight, Harris said he would sign the new regulations following a meeting with the Garda Commissioner Drew Harris and the Attorney General.

It means that gardaí will now be able to arrest those who do not abide by Covid-19 restrictions, including those who exercise more than 2km away from their homes or people who travel for non-essential purposes.

Those who are convicted face a maximum of six months in prison and a fine of €2,500.

It’s all very well to say, as the Government is saying, that these powers will be used “sparingly” and “as a last resort”. That may even be true. But that doesn’t make it any less true that you might now get six months in prison for exercising 2.5km from your home, with not another person within a mile of you.

There’s a certain kind of authoritarian crisis-watcher, and probably plenty of them reading this, who loves nothing more than to see a good hard line crackdown on people “not obeying the rules”, whatever those rules might be, and whether they are real or imagined, who also tends to completely ignore the reason that the rules exist in the first place. The rules are in place to stop the transmission of the virus. There are, of course, actual instances when the Gardai need to step in – like those little gurriers who were coughing in people’s faces. But that’s an actual crime – assault – that doesn’t need new powers for a Garda to act.

What’s extraordinary about this, of course, is that the state has actually been letting people out of prisons wholesale during the crisis. Presumably to make room in the cells for rogue cyclists.

There’s also a degree of national hysteria about the lockdown. Somebody who gets in their car and drives from their home in Dublin to their home in Kerry, if they’re lucky enough to have two homes, is unlikely to spread the illness as long as they obey social distancing rules and aren’t going to Kerry for the purpose of wandering around Killarney sneezing on people. If they’re only going out to buy food and medicine, like they’re supposed to, then there’s very little prospect of them causing a problem. The real problem, if we’re honest, is that a lot of people don’t like the idea of other people getting to move to a different part of the country when they themselves cannot.

Personally speaking, in North Tipperary, there’s very little evidence of people ignoring the Government’s advice. Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of widespread flouting of advice anywhere in the country.

Giving the state the power to detain people for “unnecessary travel” is completely absurd. For one thing, “necessary travel” is entirely and completely subjective, by its very nature. What’s necessary for you may not be necessary for me, and vice versa. Do you really need to go to town to get a fresh loaf of bread, or could you, realistically, survive until Saturday by eating that tin of butterbeans that’s been at the back of your cupboard since November? We’re all more than capable of inventing reasons for necessary travel if the mood takes us, if we’re honest.

The fight against Covid-19 is a societal effort. It involves all of us doing the most sensible things we can to prevent the spread. You can’t solve the actions of one or two fools by the blunt use of state-sanctioned force. And you certainly don’t fix the problem by criminalising some dad with a mid life crisis who cycles, lycra-clad, a few hundred yards outside his approved theatre of operations.

It’s absurd. And therefore it’s probably popular. But the actual bad decisions that made this crisis worse? Nobody’s getting arrested for those, are they?

After all, it’s not long ago that freedom of movement was paramount, is it, Simon?


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