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Explainer: Are top politicians exempt from coronavirus rules?

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has asked for further clarification from Ireland’s Commissioner Phil Hogan after receiving a dossier describing his movements in the country because “details count” a spokeswoman has said. The request stems from Mr Hogan’s attendance at the Oireachtas Golf Society’s dinner in Clifden last week. Here we look at Covid-19 rules and how they apply to senior European politicians.

Are top politicians exempt from Coronavirus rules?

EU Commissioners have no special pan-European exemptions from local rules. Indeed the European Commission repeatedly stresses the importance of informing oneself about the local rules in place, and the personal responsibility of adhering to them, whether the restrictions are legally binding or not. It launched an online service, Re-open EU, to provide information in 24 languages on what rules are in place in different EU countries, to allow citizens to check what they need to comply with before they travel.

Some EU countries exempt politicians who are travelling for work reasons from their Coronavirus restrictions, but Ireland has no such provision.

For example under Belgian law, people with an “essential function or need” who are undertaking essential travel are exempted from requirements to quarantine for 14 days on arrival from most countries that apply to everyone else.

Belgium’s official list of essential workers includes medical workers, cross-border commuters, agricultural seasonal workers, and diplomats and those working for international organisations.

According to these laws Commissioner Phil Hogan, Members of the European Parliament, and any Irish officials travelling to take part in an official EU meeting in Brussels count as essential workers, and are exempt from quarantine requirements as long as they are travelling for work reasons.

But Irish coronavirus restrictions are different.

Firstly, the rules about self-isolating for 14 days are not set down in legislation at all. It is official advice from the Government, like the request not to travel abroad, but it’s not the law.

The government offers no exemption for politicians in its quarantine advice: only aircraft, ship and transport crew are exempted.

It is a legal requirement to fill out a Covid-19 Passenger Locator Form on arrival from another country. The only people exempted from this are “essential supply chain” workers like air, ship crew and hauliers and accredited diplomats.

But there is no exemption for politicians such as Commissioner Hogan, MEPs, or indeed the Taoiseach.

Nevertheless, when Taoiseach Micheál Martin returned from Belgium after attending a European Council meeting in July, he did not self-isolate for 14 days and instead went directly into the Dáil the same day to take leaders’ questions.

How was he able to do this? When asked by the Irish Times, the Taoiseach’s office replied with a quote from the Chief Medical Officer Ronan Glynn to say “the Taoiseach, the leader of the country will be doing will be essential work”.

This indicates that the Government interprets its own rules to mean that some people can have an ad-hoc exemption from the quarantine requirements, if the chief medical officer deems them to be doing “essential work”.

But unlike in Belgium, there is no public list of who counts as “essential”.

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