Legal experts criticise lack of transparency in Covid-19 law-making
Legal experts have urged the government to clarify its relationship with NPHET and ensure democratic oversight of public health measures introduced to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic in Ireland.
A comprehensive 142-page report from the Covid-19 Law and Human Rights Observatory at Trinity College Dublin criticises a lack of transparency in many key decisions made by ministers during the pandemic.
The Public Health Law During the Covid-19 Pandemic in Ireland report addresses many different facets of life impacted by such decisions, including the impact on people living in prisons and direct provision centres, and on policies involving vaccination and on Ireland’s approach to counting deaths from Covid-19.
The general lack of transparency, the authors found, ranged from who actually made key decisions to whether certain public health measures were legally enforceable, and included the sources of information used to support decisions. The report includes 16 specific recommendations for improvement.
It warns that “after sweeping statutory powers were delegated to the government by the Oireachtas, the government has – unofficially, but de facto – in many cases re-delegated these powers to unelected, technocratic public health experts”.
“If we do not have clear lines of decision-making and accountability, and a clear sense of the power resting with the government, then the idea that we can have even notional democratic oversight for these powers seems very remote,” the report adds.
Elsewhere, the report calls on the prison service to make public, in a timely fashion, the measures adopted by the service during the pandemic, and provide prisoners with timely information about the pandemic and future public health crises.
It also calls for the end of the direct provision system of accommodation for asylum seekers without delay, arguing that Covid-19 has spotlighted the many deficiencies of the system.
On vaccination, the report suggests that mandatory vaccination could legally be introduced – but only if a significant proportion of the population declines vaccines and there is clear evidence of the harm caused by individuals refusing vaccination.
The report also criticises Ireland’s system for registering deaths as too slow and proposes that funerals or cremations should not take place until a death is registered.
Speaking on the launch of the report, Sarah Hamill, assistant professor in law at Trinity, said: “The overarching finding of this report is a significant lack of transparency in how and why important decisions were made during the Covid-19 pandemic in Ireland.
“Transparency and clarity are key aspects of public health governance and one of our recommendations of this report is the need for far more. If we don’t have clear lines of decision-making and accountability, and a clear sense of the power resting with the government, then the idea that we can have even notional democratic oversight for these powers seems very remote. This is undoubtedly a cause for concern.”
Alan Eustace, scholar and PhD candidate in Trinity’s School of Law, added: “Pandemic response requires not only proportionate restrictions on people’s behaviour but also economic and legal supports that will enable people to comply with those restrictions.
“We therefore recommend changes to the law on working remotely and social welfare supports, in order to allow people to follow public health restrictions and guidelines.”