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Emergency Coronavirus Legislation: A Briefing Note


Monday, March 23, 2020

Last Friday, the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act, 2020 (the “Act”) was signed into law by President Michael D Higgins. This is the Government’s first legislative response to the coronavirus crisis. The purpose of this Briefing Note is to summarise the provisions of the Act for Philip Lee clients.

Why is this legislation being introduced?

As Ireland has moved to the “delay phase” in its response to the coronavirus, the aim of the Government is to keep the number of affected people to a minimum and reduce pressure on the health service.

With this in mind, the Government have introduced “social distancing” measures, a term we are now all familiar with. So far, this has resulted in the closure of schools, pubs and restaurants, the limitation of public and private gatherings of people and a substantial amount of the Irish workforce now working from home, where possible.

The Act has two main aims:-

  • provide enhanced income support for workers who are required to self-isolate or who lose their jobs; and
  • provide the Government with certain powers to prevent the spread of the coronavirus as far as is possible.

What restrictions on public gatherings or travel does the Act allow for?

The Act amends (and arguably expands upon) the powers conferred on the Minister for Heath under certain sections of the Health Act, 1947, which were originally introduced to curb the spread of tuberculosis.

Specifically, the Act gives the Minister powers to do the following:-

a. restrict travel to or from the State;
b. require people to remain in their homes;
c. prohibit events;
d. require owners or occupiers of premises/ places to implement safeguards to prevent, limit or slow the risk of coronavirus infection;
e. temporarily close premises/places; and
f. take any other measures the Minister deems necessary to prevent, limit or slow the risk of persons contracting coronavirus infection.

Premises/places is not defined but will likely apply to virtually any premises or place, public or
private, in the country.

What are “Affected Areas”?

Separately, the Act gives the Minister the power to declare a particular area or region within the State to be an “affected area”.

This is an area or region where there is a sustained transmission of coronavirus or where there is a high risk of coronavirus infection.

In such circumstances, the Minister may impose travel restrictions to, from or within the “affected area”. This obviously means that certain areas of the country may be the subject of entry and exit restrictions, akin to the situation that prevailed in Wuhan in China earlier this year.

Does the legislation allow for detention and Isolation?

Yes. The Act allows for the detention and isolation of individuals if a Medical Officer believes they are a source of infection or a potential risk to public health. An individual’s detention can also be ordered if they cannot be effectively isolated, refuse to remain in isolation or are unlikely to remain in isolation.

This is perhaps one of the more controversial aspects of the legislation. Interestingly, similar measures were introduced to combat the spread of tuberculosis in 1947 – but the measures under the 2020 legislation are wider. In 1947, an individual could only be detained or isolated if they were a “probable” source of infection. Under the Act, it is enough for a person to be a “potential” source of infection.

What Employment and Income Supports have been put in place?

Separately, the Act provides for two measures to assist workers (both employed and self-employed) who have either lost employment or who are ill as a result of the virus.

– COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment
A new social welfare payment will be available immediately to individuals who find themselves out of work or who have their working hours reduced as a result of coronavirus. The payment will be paid for a period of up to 6 weeks at a rate of €203 per week.

In an interview on 21 March, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, described the payment as an “emergency payment” and said further measures would be introduced to support anyone who has lost their jobs.

Illness Benefit
Changes have also been made to the Illness Benefit regime.

a. the current 6-day waiting period for Illness Benefit will not apply to those affected by coronavirus or in medically-required selfisolation. They will get the Benefit straight away.

b. Illness Benefit will increase from €203 to €305 per week. This will be available for a maximum
of 2 weeks where a worker is required to selfisolate.

Where an individual has a confirmed diagnosis of coronavirus, the full duration of absence from work is covered by the Benefit.

c. the normal social insurance requirements of Illness Benefit will be changed or the means test for Supplementary Welfare Allowance (as the case may be) will be removed.

These measures were previously announced by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social
Protection and are now formalised into law by the Act.

What is the duration of these measures?
The social welfare benefits outlined above will continue until 9 May 2020 (although the Government can extend the social welfare payments when it is in the public interest to do so).

The extensive powers conferred on the Minster under the Act will remain in force until at least 9 November 2020. They may be extended beyond that date by both the Dáil and the Seanad.

 

For queries or further advice in relation to the above, please contact Patrick Walshe.

Article written with the assistance of Ian Hanrahan.


Author

Patrick Walshe

PARTNER


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