Social gatherings with alcohol have been linked to the spread of Covid
TÁNAISTE Leo Varadkar has suggested a new penalty regime for breaching Covid restrictions could be considered where members of the public are fined €50 for not wearing a mask or €200 for leaving a county under lockdown.
Mr Varadkar raised the idea at the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting on Tuesday where he also noted that the public health laws as they currently stand are very strong and that Gardaí are satisfied with their existing powers which allow them police by consent.
He also said there will be increased levels of policing on the roads under level three restrictions.
While signalling there are no immediate plans to change the laws, the Fine Gael leader said one of the questions that could be considered was whether the Government should bring in a fines regime, including €50 for not wearing a mask or €200 for leaving your county when restrictions are in place.
Level 3 restrictions, which are now in place nationwide, prevent people from leaving their counties unless for essential reasons although there are no powers of enforcement for gardaí.
Mr Varadkar’s spokesperson said: “The law already provides for fines of €2,500 for breaches of some laws like organising a gathering or not wearing a mask on public transport.”
“All options are under review but there are no plans at present for a new system of fines.”
The Department of Health proposed a system of new fines a number of weeks ago but the idea has been resisted by the Department of Justice. Justice officials believe a graduated fine system will not work because people will ignore smaller financial penalties. There are also concerns over what happens if someone refuses to pay a fine. Gardaí have also continually told department officials they do not believe a new system of fines is necessary.
Meanwhile, off-licence opening hours would be significantly reduced under Government plans aimed at clamping down on house parties and large social gatherings.
The proposal to curb opening hours is intended to further limit social gatherings with alcohol, which have been linked to the spread of Covid.
Three ministers raised the prospect of reducing off- licence opening hours.
Social Protection Minister Heather Humphreys was the first to raise the issue and was supported by Justice Minister Helen McEntee and Minister of State for Roads Hildegarde Naughton.
Ms Humphreys' Monaghan constituency has seen a recent spike in Covid-19 and on Monday had the second highest number of new cases per 100,000 people in the country.
Ms Naughton is a Galway minister where a large gathering of students drinking in the city recently gained national headlines.
The minister was furious about the street party in the Spanish Arch and said something should be done about the role off-licences play in such events.
It was noted at the meeting that reducing off-licence opening hours may also help pubs and restaurants as people may be more likely to go to regulated premises rather than house parties.
Garda Commissioner Drew Harris yesterday suggested gardaí may arrive to an area where there is a house party.
"There is a constitutional protection of the home," he said.
"Having gardaí positioned outside your home during a house party will really dampen the mood."
Gardaí are today manning 132 checkpoints on main arterial routes across the country to ensure people are complying with Level 3 lockdown guidelines to remain in their counties.
Mr Harris warned of traffic jams and reduced flow on motorways as he announced Operation Fanacht. More than 2,000 officers will be on Covid-19 related duty, working a 12-hour roster introduced at the beginning of the pandemic, with the cost estimated to hit €15m in overtime if the operation continues to the end of the year.
However, the Government has not given the force any extra powers to enforce the guidelines.
Instead, gardaí are operating a policing by consent model, with people urged to adhere to the guidelines to protect themselves and those around them from Covid-19.
"Policing is an extension of good citizenship," the commissioner said at Garda HQ in the Phoenix Park, Dublin.
Officers at the stops will be focusing on "the three Es" - engage, educate and encourage.
While the commissioner admitted that a motorist will be able to continue on, even if stopped and asked to turn back by officers, he said it would be "a foolish choice".
Mr Harris said often the sort of people who do this "have made poor choices elsewhere" and could be dealt with using other powers.
He said the focus will also continue to be on community policing, as well as dealing with organised crime during the period of Level Three across the country.
The commissioner suggested extra powers were not needed for now.