By Cormac O'Keeffe
Garda bosses are examining how police forces abroad are dealing with enforcing Covid-19 public health directions, but do not anticipate arresting people who gather in groups.
Garda HQ has asked the attorney general for legal clarification around powers of arrest in relation to people diagnosed as positive for the virus but not obeying quarantine.
It is thought this might involve adding Covid-19 to the list of infectious diseases under the 1947 Health Act, but sources expect this will only be relevant for a small number of people.
In relation to policing current crimes and offences, Garda commissioner Drew Harris did suggest a possible reduction in arrests, saying that while there is “no ban on arrests”, if gardaí judged alternative options — such as fines and cautions — were appropriate, they could be used instead.
The Garda chief said detective work will continue, as will operations targeting organised crime, elements of which, he said, could seek to exploit people’s fears through fraud.
The commissioner announced an increase in garda patrols in communities and on the streets to provide “reassurance” to people, assisted by the hiring of an additional 210 vehicles.
Amid conflicting reports — including written orders from Garda commanders directing patrols at supermarkets and chemists — the commissioner said the increase in patrols was “general” and not aimed at supermarkets.
He said such patrols primarily deal with “traffic flows” and provide reassurance to people and businesses. He had no other “particular concerns” with supermarkets, such as looting, but told shoppers they need to “remain calm” and that there is “no issue” with food supplies.
Mr Harris announced that around 325 student gardaí will be attested as members next week and allocated to garda stations. A new 12-hour roster will replace the 10-hour roster, and there will be restrictions on holidays.
He was asked if there were plans to ramp up measures, given the methods adopted by police abroad, including Italy.
“We are learning from experience in Europe, we have the policing issues of the day, but we are also planning, looking forward to what has been seen in other European countries.
“That’s not to say that every country follows the exact same pattern of others — one message is as a society, as a community, it’s far better to work together — follow HSE advice.”
Asked if he envisaged arrests of people congregating in public, Mr Harris said: “There are no plans at this stage. We are looking to society to effectively be responsible, so it’s not anticipated — nor even being considered — that we would be arresting people in mass gatherings, no.”
He accepted the attestation of student gardaí, some of whom have done just two months’ training, is “not perfect”, but said they would not be on their own, but accompanied by tutor gardaí.