Public Health And Wellbeing Amendment (state Of Emergency Extension) Bill 2021
"The state-of-emergency powers enable mandatory quarantine, isolation and the lockdown restrictions with which we are all too familiar. These measures have controlled, more or less, the spread of the coronavirus responsible for COVID within Australia"
Dr READ: This bill extends by nine months the time period during which the Minister for Health can declare a state of emergency under the act, from 12 to 21 months. The previous extension was by six months, from six to 12 months. Under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 states of emergency can only be declared for a month, but this bill will allow that to be repeated for another nine months without returning to Parliament. The state-of-emergency powers enable mandatory quarantine, isolation and the lockdown restrictions with which we are all too familiar. These measures have controlled, more or less, the spread of the coronavirus responsible for COVID within Australia, and all states have exercised some of these powers. The New South Wales government has these powers without requiring a state of emergency, and the other states all have states of emergency. Victorians have now seen how this government have used these powers, along with both the negative and the positive consequences.
The prolonged lockdown during the winter and the spring of last year was traumatic for us all, but some were hit particularly hard. Many Victorians were unable to visit close friends or family for months. People were confined to apartments, often alone and far from people they loved. Thousands lost work, or their businesses collapsed. Education suffered, and cultural activity all but stopped. The economic consequences of last year’s lockdown will be felt for years to come.
During Victoria’s second wave of infections over 820 people died, 46 of them younger than 70, and thousands of healthcare workers were infected. At the peak in mid-August 675 Victorians were in hospital with COVID. The state-of-emergency powers were critical to curtailing the second wave of the epidemic in Victoria by limiting the movement and mixing of people. In contrast, many countries in the Northern Hemisphere have been reporting over 1000 deaths in a single day during the peak of their current epidemics, demonstrating the protective effect of Australia’s geographic isolation combined with quarantine policies and infection control measures.
These measures relied on the state-of-emergency powers that we are debating today. So last year’s lockdown caused great suffering and prevented an enormous amount of death and disease. It protected our hospital system from being overwhelmed, but with hundreds of COVID inpatients and hundreds of infected staff and their contacts isolating at home we can see what would have happened if our infection rate had continued to climb above its peak of around 700 per day in early August. Much has been said about errors in the management of hotel quarantine and contact tracing.
"Too much time was wasted last year searching for someone to blame for the quarantine leaks in June and the outsourcing to security companies when we should have been trying to fix the deficiencies in contact tracing."
But those questions from last year are no longer central to deciding whether the Minister for Health should be able to declare a state of emergency beyond the middle of next month. Two questions are important now: first, are we likely to need these powers for much longer? And second, can the government be trusted to use them appropriately? The first is straightforward—it will be many months before sufficient Australians are vaccinated to reduce the threat of COVID to a point where local transmission can be tolerated, and we do not know how effective our vaccines will be against the more infectious viral variants that are now commonplace. So the state-of-emergency powers may be required for most of this year. In fact the news has just got a little worse with the apparent lack of efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine against the South African variant, which is particularly alarming.
The second question is harder to answer. Mostly the state government has used the state-of-emergency powers when necessary and most importantly, indeed critically, has removed the restrictions when they were no longer required. But some aspects have been concerning. The Greens and community members have previously commented on the heavy-handed lockdown of public housing towers in Flemington and North Melbourne. In our view there has been an over-reliance on policing and heavy fines in achieving compliance with the chief health officer’s directions. These fines are higher than most traffic offences and have been applied to rich and poor and teenagers, regardless of their ability to pay. Data from the first lockdown shows Sudanese and Aboriginal people were over-represented among those fined.
Even when community transmission has been low or at zero levels, public protest has been banned. We accept that public gatherings must not occur when local transmission is significant, but we believe that the government has a duty to allow public protest in all but the most dangerous circumstances and to make it very clear what attendees are required to do to maximise safety, even if this means car convoys. This is regardless of the issue that people are protesting about. The Premier’s announcement that Victorians could not attend the Invasion Day rally was wrong and gave the impression that COVID was a pretext to suppress dissent. It alarms me that people are still facing very large fines for inciting protests last year.
Despite the above, serious complaints against police are investigated still by police and not an independent agency, except rarely. The prominent role of police and the use of large fines and the apparent focus on people of colour and poorer neighbourhoods all points to inappropriate enforcement of the state-of-emergency powers. Therefore we are concerned that a nine-month extension of the power to call a state of emergency without returning to Parliament is too long. We look forward to hearing more from the government to give us confidence that they can wield these powers without excessively heavy-handed enforcement.
We are obviously also concerned that state-of-emergency powers were needed for this week’s five-day lockdown. Make no mistake, given the situation a swift hard lockdown was preferable to a delayed and potentially longer lockdown such as we endured last year. It is interesting to imagine what it would have been like if we had had a lockdown such as we had this week in early July last year. How much would that have changed the course of the subsequent longer lockdown? We will never know, and it is easy to be an expert in retrospect.
But the errors in hotel quarantine that led to this year’s lockdown becoming necessary are alarming and do not reassure Victorians that everything possible is being done to avoid further lockdowns. The apparent under-recognition of the risk of COVID developing in cold hotels in returned travellers with an initial negative test and the apparent failure to appreciate the importance of preventing airborne aerosol transmission are just two examples. Staff in cold hotels were reportedly not wearing fit-tested N95 respirators. I am reassured by the recent decision to invest in a Howard Springs-type quarantine facility where the accommodation units open into fresh air. But we also have to hope that COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria strives to improve its infection control procedures. We cannot have a government that believes its own spin on these matters. Things will always go wrong and can always be improved, so a culture of continuous improvement is required.
This week’s lockdown repeated much of the pain, albeit for just five days, that Victorians suffered last year. The government has said it is considering help for small business, and we argue that casual workers should not be forgotten. Those having trouble paying the rent because they could not work on the weekend should be helped. They often put food on our tables and should not have to struggle to put food on their own.
Essentially our concerns are with the manner in which some of these powers are enforced and with how best to alleviate some of the unavoidable hardship that results from their use. But we do endorse the government’s decision to follow the health advice and to use the emergency provisions of the Public Health and Wellbeing Act to protect public health and the hospital system. We understand that government both last week and back in July had to make a very tough decision with brutal consequences in order to prevent a health catastrophe. We deplore the efforts to undermine the public health response to this pandemic. Once the virus is spreading in the community there are only two choices: bad and catastrophic. So here I urge the Liberals and other right-wing groups not to cast doubt on the need for lockdowns and the power to order them.
The opposition has legitimately exposed some of the government’s spin and false reassurance, but it is important not to conflate the failings of quarantine and contact tracing with the need for state-of-emergency powers by suggesting that the lockdowns may not have been necessary. Scaremongering about why legal directions were written for longer than five days, for example, or suggesting that they are intended to harm small business work against the interests of public health. Saying that the lockdown is a sign that the government does not trust Victorians is a way of saying that it might not be needed.
Fortunately most Victorians knew, reluctantly, that we had to do it. You never know at the beginning of a crisis how urgently and enthusiastically you must respond; you only know that you would rather do too much than too little. You can only ever do too much or too little; you can never do it exactly right. Whether you are throwing water on a fire or organising public health interventions, I know which I would rather. So I applaud Victorians for their support of the public health measures and for their forbearance in enduring one of the most disruptive periods in our history.
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