Statement by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Charlie Flanagan TD, on COVID-19 in the Justice sector
Dáil Éireann, 13 May 2020
Check against Delivery
A Ceann Comhairle, Deputies,
I welcome this opportunity to update you on measures taken to battle COVID-19 in the Justice sector.
First, I wish to express my deepest condolences to all who have lost loved ones in this horrific pandemic and wish a safe recovery to all those fighting the virus.
I would like to pay particular tribute to frontline workers throughout the sector including our Gardaí and Garda staff, Prison staff, Courts officers and staff and Immigration Officers.
In managing our response, my Department has a cross-functional team in place and is also part of the series of cross-government structures. In particular, we work very closely with the HSE.
I will now turn to some key measures taken.
An Garda Síochána
The 14,700 members of An Garda Síochána – including 300 student Gardaí who attested early in March – are playing a key role in protecting public health.
They have been given exceptional new and temporary powers for that purpose and therefore we have taken care to ensure effective oversight and close attention to our tradition of policing by consent and adhering to human rights obligations.
These temporary powers are necessary, provided for by law, and explicitly in the interests of protection of public health and applied in a proportionate way as part of a carefully graduated response, which ensures Gardaí engage, explain and encourage the public to comply and, only as a last resort, make use of their enforcement powers.
I requested the Commissioner to compile and publish a record of the use of these powers which he is doing on a weekly basis. I also requested the Policing Authority to independently assess and report regularly on their use. I have made this information publicly available on my Department’s website.
Beyond this critical role supporting public health restrictions, ordinary policing operations continue with a particular focus on cybercrime.
I also want to acknowledge and thank Gardaí for their tireless work in community engagement and outreach.
This pandemic has reinforced the community role of our frontline Gardaí - I am sure members will have seen the countless examples in their community and local media of Garda members checking in on those cocooning and providing practical assistance.
This deep connection to community has always been the defining feature of An Garda Síochána and never has this ethos been more acutely needed. I thank the Commissioner for his leadership and all Gardaí for their commitment.
Still Here campaign
The women, men and children who perhaps feel most vulnerable and afraid at this time are victims of domestic abuse, those whose homes are tragically anything but safe.
We recognised at the earliest stage that being asked to ‘stay at home’ must bring added risk and a real sense of fear for victims of domestic abuse and came together with key partners to devise a new plan. This has included:
- Establishment by Gardaí of a special ‘Operation Faoiseamh’ on domestic abuse; and
- Special measures by the Courts Service and Legal Aid Board to give priority to domestic abuse and childcare cases.
While not within my remit, I understand Tusla has put a range of practical supports in place in relation to refuge accommodation.
We have also launched a public awareness campaign which has delivered a hard-hitting campaign across TV, radio, social and traditional media.
I strongly urge anyone suffering domestic abuse to reach out for help. The State and frontline services in the community are standing together to support you. More information on where to find support is available at www.stillhere.ie
Irish Prison Service
I would like to draw particular attention to the work being done by the Irish Prison Service which face an exceptional challenge.
A significant range of measures have been taken by the IPS to safeguard the wellbeing of prisoners. These measures have been guided by advice from NPHET and have also been consistent with prison-specific guidance issued by the WHO and the Council of Europe.
- a reduction in prisoner numbers through temporary release, to facilitate greater physical distancing and infection control;
- cocooning vulnerable prisoners;
- quarantining new committals;
- isolation and testing of prisoners with symptoms;
- specially trained contact tracing teams; and
- basic health checks on all entrants, including staff and restrictions on access to prisons, including suspension of family visits.
These steps are being taken in parallel with ensuring psychological wellbeing and ongoing family contact for prisoners through video visits and other innovations, including introduction of tele-psychology services.
I also acknowledge the wholehearted support and work of the prisoners themselves. As of Tuesday 12 May, we have not had a confirmed case among the prisoner population.
I would like to publicly say how proud I am of the men and women of the prison service and pay tribute to the ongoing work of Director General Caron McCaffrey, her senior management team and the approximately 3,500 prison service staff - including the medical team.
Since the start of the crisis, the Judiciary and the Courts Service have shown considerable capacity to adapt and respond to ensure the administration of justice continues in an effective and safe manner. Critical business has continued and innovative measures introduced including video-link appearances from prisons for persons currently in custody; judgements issued online; avoiding the need for legal practitioners to attend Court; on-line training and e-manuals for staff; and e-meetings.
Pilot remote courts commenced in the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal on the week commencing 20 April. Building upon this experience, remote courts have since been held in the High Court, Circuit Court and District Court.
Last Friday, the Chief Justice, Court Presidents and Courts Service outlined the next steps being undertaken to extend court services in a gradual and responsible way, creating a pathway to opening some courts in line with the Government’s Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business.
Turning to the more than 7,700 people we provide accommodation and supports to under Direct Provision . I want to acknowledge the support provided to my Department by the HSE, in particular the National Social Inclusion Office and the NPHET subgroup on vulnerable persons. Working collaboratively has enabled us to quickly develop policy responses for the benefit of all residents.
We carefully follow the guidelines prepared by the HSE’s Health Protection Surveillance Centre for residential settings with vulnerable residents.
HSE advice has evolved over time and we have evolved our responses with it. We have been assured by both it and the Office of the Chief Medical Officer that our approach is appropriate.
From the outset, we recognised the need for offsite self-isolation facilities for individuals and identified four suitable premises in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Dundalk with capacity for 299 people.
These self-isolation facilities have non-profit (Section 39) organisations onsite providing psychosocial supports to residents and residents are being supported by HSE healthcare professionals. The Section 39 organisations have provided important care and I have proposed to Minister Harris that we make arrangements for these organisations to be part of the team in every Centre. This is a measure I hope can be implemented as quickly as possible.
Since the start of the year, over 1,550 permanent and temporary new beds have been procured in new Centres. Over 600 residents have relocated to support social and physical distancing in centres and cocooning measures. We have reduced the number of people sharing a room to a maximum of three and such shared spaces constitute households in line with HSE guidance on congregated settings.
We moved quickly to cocoon all residents over the age of 65 and those advised as having a serious medical illness.
More generally, residents have been made aware of the need to practice social and physical distancing and good hand hygiene and coughing/sneezing etiquette.
Managers have been given detailed HSE guidance on the standard and frequency of cleaning required. PPE is distributed as required and in line with HPSC guidelines on appropriate use in residential settings. In partnership with the HSE and Safetynet, my Department has put in place a national clinical telephone service to provide public health advice to support centre management and staff.
I am very conscious of the concerns of Deputies in relation to services provided to international protection applicants and, indeed, I have my own concerns. However, as Minister, I have worked closely with Minister Stanton to drive a programme of improvements across the State. At this time, approximately 20% of all residents are in own-door accommodation and more than half of residents have access to cooking facilities and that programme of upgrades was steadily rolling out when this pandemic hit.
But Minister Stanton and I were also anxious to take a longer term view and that it why we asked Dr. Catherine Day to convene an independent Expert Group to establish international best practice in the provision of services to International Protection Applicants and advise on long term planning. That report is due later this year.
As the Chief Medical Officer has made clear many times, people should only travel where essential. The numbers arriving into Ireland are very small, the majority Irish citizens returning home. The Border Management Unit at Dublin Airport together with the Garda National Immigration Bureau, are collecting the Irish public health passenger locator form and the system of spot checks are being rolled out on an administrative basis on behalf of health authorities, including follow-up phone calls.
The operation of this process is currently being analysed and reviewed by officials in the Department of Health, in conjunction with the Office of the Attorney General, in the context of potential new regulations. There remains work to be done in developing these complex regulations and further consultations are required.
I can confirm today that the 2 month automatic extension I announced in March for immigration permissions will be further extended for an additional 2 months – that is immigration permissions due to expire between 20 May and 20 July will be extended subject to the same conditions being met.
For students, this means they will be able to continue work if they so wish, but they must also re-enrol in a course of study, many of which are now available online,
Finally, I wish to sincerely thank our frontline healthcare workers, for all the work that has and which continues to be done.
Minister of State Stanton and myself are now happy to take any questions which Deputies might have. We will endeavour to deal with your concerns but if we do not have detail to hand on any matter, we will follow up immediately in writing.