Emergency draconian laws designed to curb the spread of the coronavirus could save tens of thousands of lives, Tánaiste Simon Coveney has told the Dail.
TDs on all sides of the house are set to back radical powers for health authorities to detain people with the virus and close off whole areas and for gardai to close down public events.
An emergency sitting of the Dáil to agree the powers saw TDs sit several seats apart, observing social distancing with only 50 of the 160 deputies allowed into the chamber.
Opening the emergency Dáil sitting, Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl said: "However much we try to tame the world we share with so much else we are rarely true masters of our own destiny. Something as cruel and capricious as coronavirus has come from nowhere to challenge us.
"We arrive here today to debate, at social distances from each other in the chamber, utterly shaken and taken aback by the events of the past few days and weeks. This legislation is the first step in this long and difficult journey."
The emergency laws provide for mass gatherings to be shut down and give powers to order groups of people in areas to stay indoors.
The laws also allow for the detention of a person, if a medical recommendation has been given, if they refuse to self-isolate.
Health Minister Simon Harris called on the public to work together to "save lives" as he outlined the range of laws to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Mr Harris said it was not time for "petty" politics and that everyone needs to "work together".
“We cannot stop this virus. We cannot wish it away. As our figures showed last night, it is a virus that does not discriminate based on age, gender, or location.
"What we can do is help slow its spread. We can help our health service by following their guidance and advice. We will only flatten the curve if we work together and if we do, we will save lives.”
Mr Harris also introduced measures to pay illness benefit to those infected as well as social welfare payments for the unemployed. Payments will be made from March 9 to May 9 but they can be extended.
Mr Coveney appealed to his counterparts to support some of the radical laws and restrictions, which can also be extended without further recourse to the parliament.
He said the country was in preparation for the virus, which was “going to pick up pace”.
It is a “very difficult period” for Ireland that will pass but will “scar” the country.
Nonetheless, he added: “The action we take, the decisions that we make and the leadership and the certainty in terms of people protecting themselves, will be the difference between whether the virus kills hundreds of people, thousands of people or tens of people.
"It’’s as simple as that.”
Fianna Fáil TD Stephen Donnelly told the Dail the 15,000 figure for the number of cases of Covid-19 the Government has predicted by the end of the month is "a worst case scenario".
"The measures we are taking now should slow that growth rate and does not include the potential impact of schools being closed and the efforts being made by the public and businesses."
Opposition TDs call for 'sunset clause' on new government powers
Opposition TDs have tabled amendments to the government’s “draconian” new powers, asking they be subject to a time limit.
The wide-ranging powers give the government the ability to ban certain gatherings and travel to certain areas, and for Gardaí to detain those suspected of carrying or spreading the coronavirus.
Such powers have been flagged as cause for concern as the legislation, due to run out on May 9, and could then be extended indefinitely, by Government order, unless annulled by the Houses of the Oireachtas.
Questions were asked about the ambiguous language, such as what constitutes a “gathering”.
People Before Profit proposed measures to ensure the powers to limit movement have “a sunset clause”.
Labour proposed limiting the new Act to six months and to require a resolution of each House of the Oireachtas to extend it further.
During the debate, it was noted by Cork North-Central TD Mick Barry that Ireland has a history of extending emergency powers beyond the state of emergency, such as the Offences Against the State Act, implemented during the Troubles.
Independent TD Catherine Connolly that the law was written in “absence of human rights”.
“If you want us to support you in this draconian law you must show good faith and bring in legislation thats framed in human rights, proportionate and non-discriminatory,” she said.
Sinn Féin Health spokesperson Louise O’Reilly said the laws were extraordinary due to lack of Oireachtas approval needed to introduce such extreme measures.
“Some of these provisions should be measures of last resort, and must only be used in the last resort,” she said.
Minister Simon Harris said he was open to amendments on the “sunset clause” and recognized the need for such a provision.