Page 754 - Week 03 - Thursday, 2 April 2020

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Public Health (Emergencies) Amendment Bill 2020

Debate resumed.

MRS JONES (Murrumbidgee) (10.54): The Canberra Liberals will be supporting this bill today. The bill makes two key changes to emergency declarations and to the powers of the Chief Health Officer. Under emergency declarations the bill amends section 119, emergency declaration. Currently, emergency declarations remain in force for a period of five days and can be extended or further extended for periods of up to two days.

This clause makes no change to this in practical terms, except in the case of a COVID-19 emergency declaration. Under these changes COVID-19 declarations can be extended or further extended for periods of up to 90 days. If a COVID-19 declaration has been extended or further extended, the Chief Health Officer must advise the minister at least every 30 days about the status of the emergency and whether the Chief Health Officer considers the declaration to still be justified. If the Chief Health Officer fails to do this, it does not affect the validity of the extension or further extension.

The bill also clarifies that this change is retrospective, meaning that it applies to any COVID-19 declaration made prior to the commencement of the legislation. These COVID-19 emergency declaration powers are subject to a sunset clause which takes effect at the end of a 12-month period during which no COVID-19 declaration has been in force.

Regarding the Chief Health Officer’s powers, the bill also amends section 120 to clarify the powers that the Chief Health Officer has to take action or to give a direction while an emergency declaration is in force.

The new power, which I think many of us believed perhaps already existed but is now being spelled out in law, relates to an action or directions in relation to the occupier of a property in or near any area to which the emergency relates, placing the property under the control or at the disposal of the Chief Health Officer. This is a good change that provides further clarity regarding the power of the Chief Health Officer, and I note that these changes are subject to a sunset clause.

I believe it is the opinion of both the minister and certainly the opposition that the Public Health Act has clearly not been set up for an epidemic, let alone the current pandemic. We are discovering this as it comes into effect. When this emergency is over, it is probably the view across both the government and certainly the opposition that the bill will need a thorough review and substantial changes will need to be made in a more considered way, as we usually operate here, with scrutiny and careful consideration, so that in a future epidemic it is in fact adequate for that future possibility.

I also put on the record thanks to the minister and her office for regular briefings, for briefings on this matter, for availability and openness in answering all questions from the opposition.

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