It will no longer be Chief Health Officer who signs on the lockdowns and restrictions under the new legislation.
The Victorian Government has introduced laws that provide a new pandemic framework for managing volatile and long pandemics such as COVID-19 – while putting the safety of all Victorians first.
Under the new laws, a new pandemic-specific part of the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 is being legislated “to embed lessons learnt managing COVID-19, incorporate best practice public health administration from other jurisdictions like New Zealand, and introduce greater transparency and accountability around decision-making”, according to the state government.
“Last year we committed that we would bring forward pandemic-specific legislation that was fit for purpose, and that is exactly what we have done”, Premier Daniel Andrews said.
Under the updated pandemic management framework, the role of the Chief Health Officer (CHO) will remain central to all key decisions.
“We have learned a lot over the past two years of a once in a generation pandemic, and we are applying these lessons to manage pandemics in the future – while maintaining our ability to rapidly respond to outbreaks”, Premier Daniel Andrews added.
After considering the advice of the Minister for Health and the CHO that there is a serious risk to public health arising from a current pandemic or a disease of pandemic potential, the Premier will be able to declare a pandemic.
As is the case with current State of Emergency declarations, a report setting out the reasons for declaring a pandemic and advice of the Minister and CHO will be tabled in both Houses of Parliament.
Unlike the current system where State of Emergency powers must be renewed every four weeks up to a maximum of only six to nine months, under the new framework the initial declaration will be for four-weeks but can be renewed for three-month at a time until the pandemic no longer presents a serious risk to the community.
Once the Premier has made the declaration, the health minister can issue pandemic orders for all Victorians to follow.
These orders will replace the current public health directions and can include orders to restrict or limit movement, detain or quarantine infectious people or groups of people, as well as regulate activities.
The Minister will also be able to issue a pandemic order to a specific classification of person or group depending on their location, participation at an event or activity, or a particular characteristic such as age, vaccination status, residence, occupation or living arrangements.
The state Opposition leader Matthew Guy has serious problems with this new pandemic framework and has urged MPs to vote against the bill, arguing it is the “most extreme law of its kind anywhere in Australia”.
“We do not support handing over everything, our rights, our liberties, everything to the premier of the state. Allowing the premier to effectively rule by decree for months on end, declaring and classifying individual citizens in our state, denying them their freedoms … is unprecedented,” he was quoted in the Herald Sun saying.
Matthew Guy told Melbourne radio 3AW he was deeply troubled about wording that these pandemic orders may apply to “classes of person” who can be identified by their “characteristics, attributes or circumstances”.
The state government insists there are adequate checks and balances enshrined in this new pandemic framework.
“At the core to this framework is accountability and transparency in decision-making, while ensuring public health advice is central to any pandemic response”, Minister for Health Martin Foley said.
“This framework takes the best components from Australia and overseas and adds them to our already robust response”, Minister for Health Martin Foley added.
Checks and balances listed in the draft are as below:
- An Independent Pandemic Management Advisory Committee made up of experts and community representatives will be established to advise on the pandemic response and management powers;
- A statement of reasons (health minister and premier and anyone else) for making pandemic orders;
- the CHO’s advice; and
- how each order affects human rights under the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities
must be published within 14 days.
- Any advice of the new Independent Pandemic Management Advisory Committee will be tabled in Parliament.
The Opposition and other critics of the new framework are also concerned about the hefty penalties and fines being brought in.
Hefty penalties and fines
Under the new pandemic framework, an aggravated offence will be created for people and businesses who intentionally or recklessly breach a pandemic order or directions. The penalty for an individual will be 500 penalty units or $90,870 (@181.74/unit) and for a body corporate 2500 penalty units ($454,350) – or more if the body corporate obtained a commercial benefit.
Axiomatically, if the new framework becomes the law, the penalties and fines will have a monumental jump. Currently, breaches of chief health officer directions can attract fines of up to $19,800 for individuals and $99,100 for body corporate offenders.
In an email exchange with Bharat Times, Matthew Guy committed himself to “get rid of these powers if elected next year.
Mr Guy also told Bharat Times “the Liberal Nationals were this week introducing a Private Member’s Bill to amend the constitution (of Victoria) to require a 3/5th majority vote to extend any state of emergency beyond 30 days”.
That will make the extension of emergency power a lot tighter.