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'I'm in hell over this': Healthcare worker fears for job over breaking lockdown rules

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‘I’m sorry’: Juztyna Orkwiszewski speaks to reporter Patrick O’Connell at her home in Meath

‘I’m sorry’: Juztyna Orkwiszewski speaks to reporter Patrick O’Connell at her home in Meath

‘I’m sorry’: Juztyna Orkwiszewski speaks to reporter Patrick O’Connell at her home in Meath

THE first healthcare worker in Ireland to be convicted of breaching lockdown restrictions after she was caught holding a gathering in her home has told the Sunday World: "I'm in hell over this."

Speaking after she was convicted of breaching the strict lockdown conditions put in place to fight Covid-19, Juztyna Orkwiszewski said: "I do realise I put my patients at risk... I'm sorry for that."

On Tuesday Juztyna and her husband Krsystof Orkwiszewski, both from Kells, appeared at Trim District Court charged under the Health Act 1947 with breaching lockdown regulations on May 16 this year.

Sergeant Kevin Mooney told the court that gardai visited the couple's address and looked in a window and saw six people sitting at a table.

On admission to the house they found ten people inside, ten more in the garden and a further ten people upstairs, he said.

The only three people resident in the house were the accused and their young daughter.

Defending solicitor Miriam Regan said there had been a number of house parties in Kells on the same day.

She acknowledged Ms Orkwiszewski was a front-line worker and should have known better.

Some people had arrived in Ireland from Poland and had come to The Glebe "to say hello and goodbye", she said.

Ms Regan also said Ms Orkwiszewski was very concerned because her job was at risk.

Judge Cormac Dunne imposed a fine of €1,000 on each of the accused.

Speaking with the Sunday World on Thursday after details of her conviction became public, Juztyna said: "Don't get me wrong, I am going through hell now.

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"I don't really want to talk about it but it wasn't 30 people... it was only half that.

"Sixteen people! I know people are talking about this now but my job is at risk because of this.

"It wasn't a house party... it was just family."

Asked whether she and Krsystof will appeal their convictions, Juztyna said: "I just want this to be over. I am going through hell, believe me. So no, I'm not going to appeal.

"I just want it over. I do realise the risk I put my patients to and I'm so sorry for that."

The gathering at the Orkwiszewskis' home took place two days before Ireland's strict lockdown was eased for the first time.

Under restrictions in place at the time, all non essential journeys were banned except for essential work, shopping for food or household goods, for healthcare appointments, and for vital family reasons.

Crucially, in the case of the Orkwiszewskis, social family visits were also prohibited.

Exceptions were made in cases where necessary to provide care to children, elderly or vulnerable people.

On May 5, it was announced that people would be allowed to travel up to 5km from their home to exercise while those who were cocooning were allowed to leave their homes for exercise as long as they avoided all contact with other people.

On May 18 the restrictions were further eased to allow for meetings outdoors of up to four people from different households.

On June 8, that restriction was loosened to allow for visits to a different household by groups of up to four people as long as they maintained a two-metre distance from those they don't live with.

After news of the Orkwiszewskis' conviction emerged, opinions were divided on the scale of the punishment imposed, in light of the 'Golfgate' controversy, where a total of 81 people including Commissioner Phil Hogan and then Minister for Agriculture Dara Calleary attended an Oireachtas Gold Society dinner in Clifden.

Although the controversy engulfed the Government and led to a number of resignations including that of the Minister for Agriculture and EU commissioner, no legal sanctions were imposed.

But according to Garda headquarters, as the law stands, only the organisers or hosts of events that breach Covid-19 restrictions can be prosecuted.

Attendees cannot be prosecuted for attending indoor or outdoor gatherings with only organisers or hosts regarded as culpable, Garda headquarters informed its members this week.

In a notice sent to all personnel, Garda management summarised the current Covid-19 measures and outlined those that are merely guidelines and others that can be enforced under law, which is only a small number.

"It is only the event organiser who potentially commits an offence; there is no offence for attending an event," the notice says of gatherings other than those in private dwellings.

Outdoor events should be limited to "groups of no more than 15", the notice says.

However, if gardai find breaches of these measures, they no longer have enforcement options available to them.