Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan has said the Covid-19 emergency laws are “special powers for special times” and are there to protect the “majority” if a small number of people flout public health advice.
Garda Commissioner Drew Harris said it “may be necessary” to use the powers adding they are needed in the “extraordinary circumstances” society finds itself in.
They were speaking at the Garda College as almost 320 student gardaí were fast-tracked as operational police as part of an emergency response to the escalating Covid-19 crisis.
Some 40% of the students have only completed five-six weeks training (compared to the standard 32 weeks), but Commissioner Harris rejected suggestions giving them full garda powers is a recipe for disaster, saying he "does not envisage difficulties”.
And, in a further bid to maximise resources, almost 125 student teachers at Templemore College are being reassigned to the frontline.
Garda HQ estimate the measures, on top of a new 12-hour shift (replacing the 10-hour shift), will increase garda resources by around 25%.
But several sources within the organisation expect that staffing levels will be hit hard by Covid-19 as the coming “storm”, described as such by the Taoiseach, hits society.
Gardaí may also have to enforce measures contained in the emergency legislation, including: policing travel to and from ‘affected areas’ or infection zones; enforcing orders on people to stay at home and temporary closure orders on premises; policing any gatherings or events and, on the direction of a medical officer, forcibly detaining and remove people who breach isolation orders.
The first arrest took place in the UK on Friday of a person who refused to self-isolate after authorities on the Isle of Man passed emergency legislation.
Speaking at the attestation ceremony in Templemore, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he didn’t expect the same draconian policing seen abroad to be carried out here, but said they need to have powers in place in case they are needed.
The 319 new gardaí comprise 195 “senior” students who have completed 16-17 weeks training and 124 “junior” students who have done just five-six weeks' training.
Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan said the rushed attestation brings garda numbers to their highest ever level, at 14,758, with 12,051 at garda rank.
“I want to assure those who are vulnerable, alone or afraid, you can count on our Gardaí,” the minister said. “They will be there to reassure you and to help you.”
Of the 329 new gardaí:
- 94 are assigned to Eastern Region
- 80 to the Southern Region
- 80 to the North Western Region
- 65 to the Dublin Region
In addition, 124 tutors and instructors from the Garda Training College are being redeployed to operational duties: 59 to the Eastern Region; 56 to the Southern Region; seven to Dublin and two to the North Western Region.
Speaking on RTÉ, Mr Flanagan said the new gardaí have received “an element of training”, but said they will be part of a team and are “up for it”.
On the new powers, he said: “They are special powers for special times. We are in an emergency situation.”
He said they are about the “protection of the majority”, who are adhering to the public health advice.
But if there is a small number who are not prepared to accept the advice and guidance from the medical experts then it’s important that we protect the majority.
Based on medical directions, gardaí will be able to “direct people to act in a certain way, to prevent mass gatherings, to prevent people who may, for example, be in isolation and, in one way or the other, are contravening isolation, gardaí will be in a position to direct them and obviously if this direction is not taken to move onto the next stage where a fine can be imposed".
Commissioner Harris said: “The powers are what’s necessary in these extraordinary circumstances we find ourselves in, and like any powers we will use them where proportionate and necessary.
“These powers exist, they may be necessary, but people should act responsibly and adhere to HSE advice.”
He said gardaí will be “acting in support” of the HSE and what action they deem is necessary for the public’s health.