Health Minister Stephen Donnelly’s bid to criminally prosecute those found to have more than six visitors in their homes was axed following a last-minute intervention by Taoiseach Micheál Martin.
The penal provision was included in the original memo brought to Cabinet but was pulled after concerns were raised by the Taoiseach and the Attorney General Paul Gallagher, theunderstands.
The news comes as publicans reacted angrily to the “paltry” bailout package announced by the Government to aid the sector, which will not re-open on Monday as previously planned because of a spike in Covid-19 case numbers.
At Cabinet, the health minister’s plan to penalise those caught having seven or more people in their homes was axed amid concerns they were “too heavy-handed”.
“Donnelly agreed with scrapping the very proposal he was himself bringing,” one source said.
It is understood that the issue around how to tackle house parties was subject to a lengthy discussion among ministers with Mr Martin seeking input from ministers across the three parties.
According to sources, there was feeling that Mr Donnelly’s memo over-reached and ministers were keen to look to the compliance route over enforcement.
“Sometimes we have to temper the desire of the Department of Health,” said one source. It is understood that ministers did not want gardaí peeping homes to see if seven people were there.
“This plan is to ensure you don’t have 30 people in your back garden, not if you accidentally have a person in for a short period of time,” said a source at the meeting.
Speaking after Cabinet, Justice Minister Helen McEntee said that Cabinet had “looked at the concerns raised around house parties by gardaí and NPHET”.
“We looked at a number of options and what we decided today is that we would implement in a Statutory Instrument (a civil provision) and that a penal provision would not be implemented.
“We have to look at how far we go when this is somebody’s home and it was felt that this would perhaps be an extreme measure, particularly around entering somebody’s home.
The decision to make holding a gathering with more than six people a civil rather than a penal offence comes as the government announced new legislation which will in a number of weeks give gardaí the power to close pubs which flout public health guidelines.
Under the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers)(Covid-19) Bill 2020, gardaí will be empowered to issue one-day closure notices to pubs that aren’t serving food or adhering to social distancing rules. The bill is expected to go to the Dáil next week and will be enacted within weeks.
The Bill will provide for three types of closure orders that can be issued to a bar or restaurant.
With pubs not due to open for at least three more weeks, they will pass the 200-day mark of their closure. Ireland is the only country in Europe where they remain closed.
After Cabinet, Mr Varadkar said that he could not say for certain if pubs would open this year.
Trade bodies for pubs hit out at the further €16m the Government has pledged for the sector. The package includes a 40% top-up of the Restart Grant and a waiver of court fees and associated excise and stamp duties relating to the renewal of pub and other liquor licences.
“This is a paltry gesture which shows how little regard this Government has for the troubles of the pub industry,” said Donall O’Keeffe, CEO of the LVA.
“We asked for support, not sympathy, and the Government has given us crumbs.”
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