Updated on 02 April, 2020
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The Department of Justice and Equality is part of a series of cross-government structures which are addressing the significant challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Department of Justice and Equality continues to work closely with all relevant justice and public health agencies, including An Garda Síochána, the Irish Prison Service, the Courts Service, the Department of Health and the HSE, to adopt measures that are in line with public policy and the evolving situation.
The Department has established a cross-functional COVID-19 response team comprising of senior officials from within the Department and from the key front-line agencies at this time.
We have put in place a coordinated approach to COVID-19 response in relation to, for example, employees’ health, welfare and the ability to perform their roles; the provision of information on good respiratory and hand hygiene practices; contingency planning; and response for service provision aligned with HSE guidance, interagency coordination and communication. This team inputs to national structures established to manage the risk of COVID-19.
The Department is redeploying staff as required to facilitate the provision of essential public services, including redeployment to other Departments / Agencies.
The sector-specific information below will be updated as the situation develops.
An Garda Síochána
An Garda Síochána, through its full time COVID-19 unit, is co-ordinating a preparedness response from a national level in An Garda Síochána in line with current HSE/Department of Health Guidelines. Garda management has plans in place to manage, on a case by case basis, any issues that arise in their workforce, which totals over 17,500 people. An Garda Síochána continues to operate as normal and is keeping its procedures when dealing with members of the public under constant review.
An Garda Síochána’s plans, as announced by the Commissioner on Friday morning (13th March, 2020), will maximise the availability of Gardaí for high visibility policing, in order to support the community and businesses to the greatest degree possible as well as covering any illness that may arise on the frontline. These plans include new roster arrangements, postponing retirements and extracting 319 recruit Gardaí to allocate to front-line duties (with appropriate supervision) and Garda instructors from the training college in Templemore. An Garda Síochána is hiring 210 additional vehicles to provide additional mobility to our members nationwide for increased community support and community engagement across the country.
Gardaí continue to use all powers available to them, including arrest, where appropriate. The enforcement of Road Traffic Legislation, in particular drink/drug driving, including breath tests, will continue. These measures have been notified to the Garda representative associations, who all appreciate the extremely grave situation facing the country and the need to seek to have maximum capacity available to maintain service delivery and support the public as required
An Garda Síochána are closely following HSE and Department of Health Guidelines when issuing advice to its workforce of over 17,500 Gardaí and Garda staff via the organisation’s CMO on this matter, and will continue to do so.
It should also be noted that:
- 320 new attested Gardaí on 20 March 2020 (14,759 Garda members, the largest number of sworn Gardaí in the history of the State) assigned to the Regions as follows:
- DMR – 94 new Gardaí assigned
- Eastern Region – 66 Gardaí assigned
- Southern Region – 80 Gardaí assigned
- North Western Region – 80 Gardaí assigned
- 124 Gardaí who work at the Garda College will be redeployed to frontline duties.
- Gardaí continue to use all powers available, including arrest, where appropriate
- The enforcement of Road Traffic Legislation, in particular drink/drug driving, including breath tests, will continue.
Following recent announcements by An Taoiseach of the necessity for people to undertake a range of public health measures to help stop the spread of COVID-19, there will be high visibility patrolling by Garda members across the country. The focus of this activity will be on encouraging people to adhere to public health measures as announced by An Taoiseach. An Garda Síochána will take a graduated approach at this time, informing and encouraging compliance by the public, as well as taking enforcement action where required. All this is in addition to its focus on normal policing operations as well as pursuing its ethos of community policing seeking out those who are vulnerable and providing assistance and making sure they don’t feel alone.
In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the Coroners Society in Ireland has decided to adjourn in –person inquests for the coming weeks. This decision was made by the Coroners following consultation with the Department of Justice and Equality, the Department of Health, and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.
This decision is being communicated to affected parties including family members of the deceased, An Garda Síochána and the Courts Service.
The Coroners Society has established a coordination group to exchange best practice and coordinate with Government. These measures will be kept under review as the situation evolves.
Immigration Service Delivery
At this point, air traffic into and out of the State has reduced very significantly as airlines scale back on operations. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade continues to update its travel advices. The land border will remain open.
There is a very close working relationship between frontline Border Management Unit staff at the Airport, the DAA and the HSE. Immigration personnel closely follow all advice from the HSE and, in the event that a suspected case arises, the clear protocols laid down are carefully followed.
On 20th March the decision was taken to temporarily cease accepting new visa applications. Increasing travel restrictions and the measures introduced as part of the Government’s efforts to interrupt the transmission of COVID-19 means that travel may not be possible and even if possible is not advisable unless essential.
The situation will continue to be reviewed in consultation with the relevant authorities in the coming days. While it will still be possible to apply for an Irish visa online in the normal manner, these temporary measures mean that applicants will not be able to complete their application process. Any application made online will remain valid until such time as restrictions are lifted. We intend to resume accepting applications as soon as safety concerns abate. Certain Priority/Emergency cases will continue to be processed and these include the following:
- Emergency visa (e.g. Healthcare professionals, health researchers, and elderly care professionals);
- Immediate family members of Irish citizens (who are returning to their ordinary place of residence in Ireland);
- Persons legally resident in the State;
- Persons entitled to avail of the provision of the EU Free Movement Directive;
- Transport personnel engaged in haulage of goods and other transport staff to the extent necessary;
- Diplomats, staff of international organisations, military personnel and humanitarian aid workers in the exercise of their functions.
The temporary closure of the Burgh Quay Registration Office was announced on 20 March as the high degree of footfall made social distancing extremely challenging. Instead we have announced that immigration permissions that are due to expire between 20 March and 20 May 2020 will be automatically extended for two months. Renewals are on the same basis as existing permissions and the same conditions will continue to apply.
While the primary reason for closing the Registration Office at Burgh Quay is due to the high footfall and challenges in maintaining social distancing, to ensure consistency across the system, these new measures will also apply to immigration registrations and renewals that take place outside of Dublin in local Garda Stations by the local Immigration Officers. This will also free up members of An Garda Síochána for other operational duties at this crucial time. Any person with an appointment scheduled is being notified directly and details of these exceptional measures are provided on our websites and through traditional and social media.
Any changes to these services areas are being posted on www.inis.gov.ie.
Accommodation Services for Applicants for International Protection
Since 13th March, two detailed briefings for NGOs have been organised and there are open lines of communication where any concerns or suggestions can be raised directly.
650 new beds have been procured to support international protection applicants during the COVID-19 crisis. These additional beds which will provide valuable additional accommodation to support the measures required for vulnerable residents; the provision of offsite accommodation for self-isolation; and will help with social distancing measures by reducing overall numbers in some existing centres.
This is a critical part of our overall strategy to protect our residents.
Every decision that my Department is taking regarding accommodation and meeting the needs of residents at this time, is being taken in full consultation with the HSE and in particular their National Social Inclusion team. We are following all HSE and NPHET advice as they are the public health experts.
The new accommodation will, in the main, be located in hotels in Dublin, Galway and Cork. These facilities will supplement new mainstream centres which have opened recently in Tullamore, Rosslare Harbour and Caherciveen following tendering processes.
Since the start of the year, over 1,350 beds have been procured enabling older centres to close and to move residents from emergency accommodation locations to dedicated centres, where cross agency services to residents can more effectively be provided.
Additional accommodation is being sought to help provide contingency beds in Accommodation Centres. 650 new beds have been procured to support international protection applicants during the COVID-19 crisis. These additional beds which will provide valuable additional accommodation to support the measures
A specific team is established to manage issues relating to COVID-19 in accommodation provided by the State. In accordance with best practice, contingency planning is in hand to address any issues arising in Direct Provision centres.
All centre managers are being supported through daily phone calls from my officials and the issues raised in these calls are informing our direct contacts with residents and staff.
HSE Information notices have been circulated to all accommodation centres and translations have also been provided. Risk assessments have been issued to centres and, in consultation with the HSE, this information is updated on a daily basis and any changing circumstances are responded to effectively.
All international protection applicants living in emergency accommodation have been contacted in writing, to ensure they have an appropriate understanding of the HSE guidelines and that they know who they can call if they have concerns. Centre Managers have also been contacted in writing with information in relation to contingency planning, while useful material from the HSE has also been circulated to centres.
Our website www.accommodationcentres.ie has been adapted to include a new section where public health information and trusted online information sources have been consolidated and we are encouraging all centre managers, staff and residents to visit the site as well as information provided.
The Department is putting in place a national clinical telephone service providing public health advice to IPAS, centre management and residents. In addition, it will provide an online GP service to any residents who have not yet been allocated a GP by the HSE or who have a GP but are unable to make contact with them. This online GP service will also make the arrangements for testing, where required.
Contingency Planning for Accommodation Centres
The Department of Justice and Equality is liaising with the HSE and is following its advice. The Department is in regular contact with all centre managers across its accommodation portfolio.
For the purposes of COVID-19 planning and response, emergency accommodation in hotels and guesthouses where the Department has sole use of the property are considered to be accommodation centres and will receive the same supports. Taking this into account, the Department currently has more than 70 accommodation centres accommodating over 7,700 people.
Actions taken to date:
The International Protection Accommodation Services (IPAS) of the Department, formerly known as the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA), is working closely with the HSE and in particular their National Social Inclusion team and is following all its advice. IPAS will continue to respond to all medical advices received working with the HSE in a collaborative and proactive manner. In that regard, a dedicated team has also been established in IPAS to manage issues relating to COVID-19 in accommodation centres (including in emergency accommodation locations).
There are a number of measures underway to support contingency planning and preparedness in centres for COVID-19:
- The assessment is that dedicated Direct Provision Centres are safer environments than commercial emergency accommodation which the Department does not have sole use of, and therefore international protection applicants have recently been transferred from emergency accommodation to dedicated centres in Tullamore, Rosslare Harbour and Cahersiveen. This means that the applicants can now be supported by a centre management team and receive all HSE information and guidance in an appropriate way.
- All accommodation centres including emergency centres have been asked to complete contingency plans for COVID-19. These plans are currently being actively reviewed by IPAS to promote shared learning and best practice across centres. The nine HSE Community Healthcare Organisations (CHO) regions are assessing all centres where people are living in congregated settings to establish their state of readiness and are offering appropriate advice to assist.
- Public health information is being distributed to all centres on an ongoing basis, guided by public health advice. HSE information notices have been circulated to all centres and translations have also been provided.
- Each centre has been asked to generate a self-isolation capability for use by persons suspected to have the virus. Any COVID-19 suspected or confirmed case, outbreak or contacts are managed by Public Health which also advises on follow up actions for example control measures including isolation. The HSE is currently considering the most effective prevention and cocoon measures for the most medically/ socially vulnerable residents in centres.
- To support social distancing and to reduce contacts in the centres, no visitors are currently being allowed entry into Centres at this time. Centres without independent living arrangements (where applicants can cook for themselves and their families) have been asked to implement staggered meal times or to provide takeaway facilities where canteens have been temporarily closed.
- In cooperation with the HSE, the Department has put in place an off-site self-isolation facility to support and care for people who are suspected of having the virus or who have the virus but with mild symptoms away from their centre. Once they are fully recovered they can then return to their centre with no risk to any other resident. The first location out in place for self-isolation is in Dublin which will provide places for 100 people. The HSE will provide the onsite health care supports, and the Peter McVerry Trust has agreed to provide the necessary social care and supports for the people staying there. This agreed model with the HSE can be replicated in any location where we need it and we are now working to identify optimum locations for additional facilities.
- The Department has procured a large volume of hand sanitiser for residents and staff across our network of centres. The HSE has not advised that staff in our centres should routinely wear masks or other PPE. It is important to remember that centres are people’s homes. The HSE and NPHET are the public health experts and we will be guided by them.
Processing of applications and appeals
- New applicants for international protection are being advised to continue to report as normal to the International Protection Office in Mount Street where initial processing will take place.
- This will enable follow on services, like accommodation, to be provided. Staff interactions with applicants are conducted behind glass screens to facilitate social distancing. The current number of applicants is quite low so waiting areas are far emptier, which also aids social distancing measures.
- Alternative arrangements are being put in place for renewal of Temporary Residence Cards (TRC’s) for international protection applicants which means they will not be required to present in person until further notice. This means that the International Protection Office will identify from its records those applicants whose permission is due to expire within the next two month period and will issue a new TRC to them by post at their last recorded address with an date extension of two months. Any applicants in Direct Provision will be required to return their old card to their centre manager for return to the IPO.
- Substantive interviews of international protection applicants have been suspended until further notice at the International Protection Office.
- Similarly, Tribunal Hearings for appeals at the International Protection Appeals Tribunal have been suspended until further notice.
Irish Prison Service
The IPS has a clear duty of care to prisoners and to the 3,500 frontline staff in the prisons who work hard in very difficult circumstances. The unique environment of a prison and the sheer numbers and diversity of people who pass through prisons make vigilance around infection prevention and control absolutely necessary. In the context of COVID-19, prisons represent a high risk environment and therefore the Irish Prison Service has increased its level of preparedness across the whole prison estate.
The Irish Prison Service (IPS) have a full time COVID-19 response team in place to oversee & coordinate prep and response. They continue to work closely with the HSE, developing contingency plans specifically for the management of COVID-19 should it present in a prison setting. It is putting in place procedures for containment and control, should a risk materialise.
The Minister has approved the IPS proposals for emergency measures to be taken to alleviate overcrowding in prison in the context of the current threat posed by COVID-19. The objective being to reduce numbers to a safe level where effective infection control measures can be managed at each prison in mitigation of the very high risks of COVID-19 in the prison system.
The approved measures to be implemented, in a sequential manner, to limit the potential for transmission within prisons and help contain infection where necessary, include:
- Amending of the criteria for considering Temporary Release (TR);
- Amendment of the administrative arrangements for prisoners granted TR;
- Increased access to enhanced remission arrangements of up to 33% for lower risk prisoners
Two of those measures have been put in place since 16th March; firstly extending consideration on a case by case basis for temporary release (TR) to prisoners considered low-risk who are serving up to 12 month sentences and who meet clear criteria. Those who breach conditions can be rearrested and returned to prison. Secondly, in order to reduce footfall and the administrative burden on prisons and Gardaí, prisoners on TR will be required to sign on once a month rather than once a week at present. As always, Temporary Release is conditional on them being of good behaviour and subject to re-arrest in the event of a breach.
The Minister has also approved amending the Prison Rules by Regulation to provide for increased availability of access to the remission rate of 33%. Again, prisoners will be assessed on a case by case basis having regard to clear criteria around the risk posed to the public. If a prisoner doesn't meet the criteria, they will continue to qualify for 25% remission
Additionally, in the event of a severe outbreak of COVID-19 in a prison which the above measures are intended to mitigate against, additional measures may be necessary in order to ensure the IPS can successfully and safely isolate contacts of confirmed cases. As such, the Minister has approved, if necessary, temporary release for prisoners with less than 6 months to serve on a sentence. This measure will also be subject to an approval of an individual assessment as to the risk posed to the public and utilising the existing criteria for temporary release.
- It is important to note that a number of key constraints on the power of release remain:
- the primary one is public safety - no prisoner who poses an undue risk to public safety will be granted TR;
- no one who is remanded for trial can be released;
- factors such as housing and health status are also taken into account. The IPS is coordinating with DHPLG and the HSE.
Prison Visiting Restrictions
The volume of people entering and exiting our prisons on a daily basis mean effective infection control and vigilance is absolutely essential. Prisons are home or the place of work of over 7,000 people, and the IPS has taken a number of necessary measures aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19 including the restriction of visits to prisoners.
The IPS has made every effort to continue to run normal family visits for along as possible. However, in the best interest of the health and safety of prison staff, prisoners and their families, from Saturday 28th March, normal physical visits will no longer be possible. Physical visits will be replaced with electronic visits via internet platforms i.e. videolink and video phones.
Electronic visits will negate the need for visitors to, for example, gather in the visitors centres at each prison and are in line with the recommendations announced this week by the Taoiseach, including,
- the instruction for people to desist from gathering in groups of 4 or more, and
- that individuals should only undertake essential travel at this time
By supporting these electronic visits, the IPS are able to continue to facilitate vital contact between prisoners and their families while ensuring the spread of Covid-19 in prisons can be controlled to the greatest extent possible.
Full information on the procedure to book an electronic visit and simple guides on how to access video link/camera phone visit will be published on the Irish Prison Service website www.irishprisons.ie
The IPS is also looking for retired staff to form a panel to support prisons in the event that staff levels drop due to staff having to isolate due to Covid19. Again details are on the website.
The Courts Service has introduced a series of measures, in consultation with the HSE, to minimise risk, while ensuring that the essential ability to continue the administration of justice in the midst of a global crisis remains.
The changes will see only urgent cases, and cases not involving witnesses, going ahead in the coming weeks. This will free up judges to hear the cases which need to go ahead, in much emptier courtrooms, having regard to social distancing advice.
The Chief Justice and judiciary will continue their work on existing cases and preparing for those that are adjourned. High Court judges will be available for urgent applications for bail and extradition, habeas corpus, wardship, injunctions and urgent applications for judicial review. Urgent family law case applications will be heard by a judge available to sit on each Circuit. Urgent applications for protection or interim barring orders or urgent matters of childcare law etc. will continue to be heard in all District Court Districts throughout the country.
Court offices will remain open, and drop boxes are being provided for documents to be left in - thus lessening the need to queue and wait. Civil matters can be adjourned by consent via e-mail. The Courts Service plans for the system of maintenance payments and payments for other vulnerable users to continue to be provided.
The Court Service contingency planning group is reviewing and updating plans on a daily basis, in consultation with key stakeholders. The current measures will be reviewed at the end of the legal term, or earlier as needed.
The Statement of the Chief Justice and each Court President which lays out specific arrangements in relation to each Court is available on the Courts Service website: Statements in respect of the arrangement of Courts – Covid-19
A statement has been issued by the President of the District Court (27/03) confirming that domestic violence applications will continue to be given priority and has provided information in relation to other family law matters such as access, maintenance and guardianship. Regarding access arrangements, the DC President advises that current restrictions mean that the detail of every access order may not be fully implantable, but parents should make every effort to allow their child to continue access in a safe, alternative way such as through video technologies or telephone conversations. Parents can agree that the arrangements set out in a court order can be temporarily varied. Where assistance is needed to help people make these changes, the Family Mediation Service of the Legal Aid Board is offering free telephone mediation and conflict coaching during this time. Full statement on Courts.ie & on Twitter (@CourtsServiceIE)
The Probation Service has convened a Contingency planning group covering key functions and working with the Senior Management Team regarding co-ordination of activities around Covid-19. All implications for service delivery decisions are being referred centrally.
In the event of offenders choosing to self-isolate, for example, not attending Community Service, probation staff will follow usual procedures i.e. seeking medical documentation/verification etc.