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Public Health And Wellbeing Amendment (state Of Emergency Extension And Other Matters) Bill 2020


The Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (State of Emergency Extension and Other Matters) Bill 2020 extends the total time for which a state of emergency can remain in force by another six months for the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Minister for Health has declared a four-week state of emergency six times, the limit under the unamended Public Health and Wellbeing 2008. The state of emergency empowers the chief health officer to give the kind of orders that restrict the movement and mixing of people, that require physical distancing and wearing of masks, that close premises and, importantly, that require isolation of those with suspected or confirmed infection. Other changes in the bill remove ambiguity and allow the chief health officer some flexibility to appoint authorised officers.

Much of the public opposition to the bill has been opposition to the restrictions, particularly to the current stage 4, and appears to confuse extending the time limit for the state of emergency with extending the stage 4 restrictions and even the state of disaster. The state of emergency allows the chief health officer to order restrictions but does not set the level. The chief health officer’s orders, empowered by the state of emergency, have brought the current wave of infection down from 700 cases a day to around 100. Such a reduction in under a month is reassuring after this highly infectious virus has shown how rapidly and widely it can spread and how difficult it is to control in places like hospitals or meatworks, where physical distancing is difficult. By 15 September, when the current state of emergency expires, I hope that we are down to fewer than 30 cases per day, but the incidence of infection is unlikely to be zero, and when the incidence falls to a low level, there is still likely to be undiagnosed cases who will not be isolating and whose contacts will not be traced and who could reignite the outbreak.

At these low case numbers paradoxically contact tracing and the isolation of positive cases becomes proportionately more important, and that is for two reasons. One, these were people who got infected despite more than a month of the strictest limits on public movement and contact ever instituted in this state. There may be many reasons for this: for example, some of them might work in a hospital and indeed do, or they might be people with cognitive impairment who are unable to understand the restrictions. But for at least some of them, if stage 4 restrictions could not stop them getting infected, then isolation may be required to stop them from passing it on. As daily case numbers fall it becomes safer for people to start moving and mixing and restrictions will be lifted. This is the second reason why contact tracing is important—so each new case becomes more significant individually as a potential source of further transmission.

Just for example, the one new case in Auckland was the most important case for a long time. The chief health officer’s orders to isolate these cases require the extension of the state of emergency for at least a few months, even after daily diagnoses reach zero. And here is a critical point to re-emphasise: the numbers refer to known cases; we can only guess at the number of unknown cases of coronavirus infection. It is possible that the infection may linger in the community for some time after the last case is diagnosed.

I hope that this wave stops soon, that we have days of zero cases in a row and within a month or two that we can be as fortunate as Hobart, Perth and Adelaide, currently enjoying no virus and no lockdown, no local transmission—this is optimistic, but remember, we had several days of no cases in June; we almost got there—but even then the chief health officer will need the power to order quarantine of international travellers who arrive in Melbourne from high prevalence countries. The chief health officer will also need to be able to respond rapidly to new cases of locally acquired infection, as happened in Auckland.

With hindsight we can see that the stage 4 restrictions we are currently under should have begun earlier and might therefore have been over by now. If an outbreak is accelerating faster than it can be contained by contact tracing, prompt restrictions on movement and mixing will likely control it faster and with less disruption to society than a more graduated, dialled-up response. It is easy of course for me to say that in hindsight. But I see no scenario where these powers for the chief health officer will not be required for at least six months, and potentially longer. And if you feel that Parliament can always be recalled to determine whether these powers can be granted month by month, remember that the daily case numbers are always at least a week behind the virus—at least a week behind viral transmission. Today’s numbers represent people who were infected a week or more ago. People infected today will be reported in the numbers announced in a week or two and only of course if they get tested.

The epidemic is always ahead of the decision-makers, and they therefore need to be able to respond both with speed and with awareness that the infection may have already spread beyond the known cases. During the swine flu pandemic a decade ago the Minister for Health was announcing suburbs as infection hotspots—I seem to recall Clifton Hill got mentioned a lot—but we now know that the virus was already several suburbs ahead. If Parliament does not extend the time limit for declaring a state of emergency, the chief health officer’s powers to respond will be very limited after 15 September.

I now want to turn to some of the Greens’ concerns with the original version of this bill. The government initially proposed a 12-month extension of the state of emergency. We have been concerned by the repeated suspension of Parliament and the lack of adequate scrutiny of the government response to the pandemic—mostly limited to press conferences and the government-chaired PAEC inquiry. We therefore felt that a 12-month extension was unnecessarily long. The shorter extension requires Parliament to reassess whether the state of emergency remains justified. The chief health officer’s powers will probably be needed beyond Christmas, even if only for the quarantine of returned travellers, and so six months is an appropriate time to extend this limit. We can reassess the legislation and the need for the state of emergency then. It is quite possible that the chief health officer may require at least some of those powers for longer, but by then we are likely to know more, both about the likely availability or not of a vaccine and about our ability to control outbreaks of this virus.

We would still prefer to have an independent oversight committee with a non-government chair. The Public Accounts and Estimates Committee currently inquiring into this is government-controlled. However, I do commend those members participating who have pushed the government to account for their decisions by asking the inconvenient questions.

I would like to discuss now some opposition to this bill. I imagine most members have received hundreds if not thousands of emails opposing any extension to the time limit for the state of emergency, and I would like to address three common themes to these emails: first, that the state of emergency undermines democracy; second, that the psychological, social and economic burden of the lockdown is worse than the effect of the epidemic; and third, that the state government are manipulating the messages we hear about the epidemic and its management. Some of that last group include conspiracy theories that do not merit discussion in this house.

First, it does to an extent undermine democracy; that is quite true. But the compromise of a six- rather than 12-month extension and increased reporting to Parliament and to MPs at least goes some way towards addressing that. A non-government chair to the scrutiny committee would be even better. We do in the end need to balance the need for accountability with the protection of public health.

On the second point, it is very difficult to estimate how much the public health intervention of lockdown and the resulting economic collapse have saved us in terms of both lives saved and disability prevented. I suspect that we do not yet know anywhere near enough about the long-term consequences of serious non-fatal infection, as just one example of the unknowns.

But the Greens, and I am sure others who support this legislation, are painfully aware of the suffering caused by the restrictions. We are worried about people who cannot visit their families. We are worried about people who have lost their jobs or their income or their business and may yet lose their homes. We are particularly worried about the effect of this isolation on those who live alone and on people from overseas who are effectively stranded here with no support. The Greens will keep working to support people in need and to ensure that no-one is left behind when society does open up. We all desperately want this lockdown to end and for restrictions to finish. We are still optimistic that we will get there faster if the chief health officer has the necessary powers. Other countries, notably the US, show us the consequences of half-hearted attempts at disease control.

And that is a good point at which to emphasise why we support the chief health officer continuing to have these powers and continuing these restrictions for the time being—restrictions that are causing so much pain. Other countries with less time to prepare than we have had have been hit very hard and suffered terrible losses. The hundreds of deaths among our elderly have been bad enough, but in Europe and North America the death toll is too high to comprehend. Their health systems in particular have been hit hard. Italy has had over 200 health workers die; the US over 1200; 500 doctors have died in Russia. Here thousands have been infected and hospitals have had hundreds off work, isolating because of infection. The virus can cripple a health system.

Finally, it is pretty obvious that some serious mistakes have been made in the response to this epidemic; we have already heard enough detail about this in this afternoon’s matter of public importance debate. The high number of health worker infections is unacceptable. Testing and contact tracing seem to have failed to bring the current outbreak under control when the numbers were very low. The government’s repeated denial of problems in these areas suggest an unwillingness to level with the public, which in turn feeds the distrust evident in much of the criticism of this bill. We need to learn as much as we can about what went wrong so that we can prevent further outbreaks.

To be fair, much of the criticism is also opportunistic. It is a great opportunity for the opposition. But they would likely be bringing this bill to Parliament if they were in government, like Liberal governments elsewhere with similar states of emergency with longer or no time limits. By criticising the stage 4 lockdown they make me ask: what would they have done differently? Can they be trusted with the task of disease control?

None of these arguments against the bill, however, justify prematurely restricting the ability of the chief health officer to bring this outbreak to a close and to prevent or control future outbreaks. When scientific research reveals a grave threat to our society and shows how to prevent it, even if it involves personal sacrifices to prevent something we cannot see, the Greens will back the science. That is why the Greens will vote for this bill.

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Dr Tim Read
Greens MP for Brunswick
4 September 2020
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