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The government response to COVID-19 raised human rights concerns, including in relation to the right to health, the enactment of emergency legislation without parliamentary oversight, and police use of spit hoods. Increased numbers of people accessed abortion services under the 2018 law, but gaps remained. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture was critical of support available for prisoners with mental health problems. The government committed to replacing the Direct Provision system of shared accommodation for those seeking international protection, and to holding a constitutional referendum on housing.

Right to health

A parliamentary committee established to review the government’s initial handling of the pandemic − the Special Committee on COVID-19 Response − found it “totally disproportionate” that 56% of all deaths from COVID-19 were in nursing homes for older people. It recommended a public inquiry and noted state over-reliance on institutional care for older people.

It also noted difficulties for those seeking international protection and living in the Direct Provision system of shared accommodation, including challenges of physically distancing and self-isolating, as well as for health care workers living in this system.

It recommended an inquiry into meat processing factories, the source of several outbreaks, with concerns about protection of workers from infection. It noted that workers in this industry were particularly vulnerable to poor working conditions which could exacerbate the risks from COVID-19.

Spit hoods

There were concerns over An Garda Siochána’s (police) deployment of spit hoods to protect police from COVID-19 infection via spitting. This was despite evidence that this device did not prevent aerosol transmission, potentially exacerbating the risk to police and the wider public.1 A particular concern was their use on children and people with mental health problems.

State overreach

The Special Committee on COVID-19 Response criticized emergency legislation enabling the government to make regulations without Oireachtas (Parliament) review or approval. It also recommended that all proposed emergency measures be human rights-proofed.

Sexual and reproductive rights

In June, the first annual report on the 2018 legislation, which expanded lawful access to abortion services, showed 6,666 pregnant people accessed abortion care in 2019, up from 32 in 2018. UK Department of Health and Social Care statistics published in June showed 375 women travelled from Ireland to access abortion services in England and Wales in 2019. This highlighted remaining gaps and barriers, such as the lack of lawful access in cases of severe rather than fatal foetal impairments.

International scrutiny

In November, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture published the report of its 2019 periodic visit to Ireland. It welcomed the recent policy abolishing solitary confinement, but recommended measures to ensure de facto solitary confinement was addressed. Amongst its concerns was the continued unsuitable placing of immigration detainees in prison together with remand and convicted prisoners, where in some cases they were subjected to abuse and bullying. While finding very good access to health care, the Committee noted poor conditions and inadequate treatment in high support units for prisoners with mental health problems. Another major concern was the rising number of homeless people with severe mental health problems ending up in prison. The Committee also found the complaints system available to prisoners not fit for purpose.

Rights of refugees and asylum-seekers

Following longstanding concerns about poor living conditions, mental health impacts, isolation, and lack of dignity and privacy in the Direct Provision system for accommodating international protection seekers, the new government in June committed to replacing it with a more human rights-compliant housing model. In October, a government-appointed Advisory Group made recommendations for a long-term approach to the provision of housing and support, as well as improvements in the international protection process. The government undertook to publish a policy document outlining its reform plans.

Right to housing

The new government committed to scheduling a constitutional referendum on housing. However, it was not clear if this would propose enshrining a right to housing, as had been recommended by the government-established Constitutional Convention in 2014.

Rights of sex workers

A study published by HIV Ireland in September found that the 2017 law criminalizing the purchase of sex had a negative impact on the safety, health and well-being of sex workers.

In September, the government commissioned an independent expert to review the operation of this law. This law had also retained the criminal offence of ‘‘brothel-keeping’’, which continued to impact sex workers’ human rights. The report of this review was expected in 2021.