The State Government will introduce legislation to parliament today to amend the Public Health Act to include a “baseline” level of COVID-19 rules.
Here’s a look at what that means.
What’s happening now?
Premier Peter Malinauskas said passing the amendments to the Public Health Act would enable the state to lift its emergency management declaration by June 30 — a declaration that has been in place for more than two years.
Police Commissioner and State Emergency Coordinator Grant Stevens said he could relinquish his powers even sooner if the changes were pushed through parliament.
“There is the potential if this bill goes through — and there’s an alternative mechanism to make sure people can be directed to do the right thing — I’ll have to seriously consider whether there will be a need for another 28-day extension,” he told ABC Radio Adelaide today.
“And at this stage, being the optimist, I’m thinking there won’t be.”
How did we get to this point?
Commissioner Stevens invoked South Australia’s emergency declaration on March 22, 2020.
That 14-day declaration was then extended by 28 days — a process which has taken place roughly every month since.
The declaration gave Commissioner Stevens the power to impose restrictions on public and private activities, including lockdowns and density limits.
What would change?
The proposed legislative changes would allow SA Health to impose requirements on positive cases and close contacts.
Commissioner Stevens said isolation requirements was one of the reasons the emergency declaration had continued to remain in place.
“One of the reasons we’ve maintained it is because we need to isolate people who are COVID positive … if this bill goes through, it will give SA Health the ability to make those directions to people who are positive,” he said.
Rules around vaccinations and masks in high-risk settings such as hospitals and aged and disability care would also remain under the legislation.
Health Minister Chris Picton said keeping some COVID rules in place would protect the most vulnerable.
“If we didn’t have this legislation in place and the emergency management ended, then all of those rules would disappear overnight and we wouldn’t be able to protect the community and have rules in place for people who test positive for COVID for example,” he said.
Lockdowns, broad mask mandates and hospitality restrictions would no longer able to be imposed once the emergency declaration ends — unless another one is declared.
What happens to Grant Stevens?
The Commissioner will remain the State Emergency Coordinator, and can declare another emergency in the future if he deems it necessary.
“The potential for another human epidemic to impact on South Australians is still there and if that was to occur — even if it is COVID — and we saw a massive impact on our community, we saw devastating consequences in relation to mortality or our hospitals were overwhelmed, it is still within my authority to declare another major emergency,” he said.
“So I can enliven the powers under the Emergency Management Act to get on top of that to prevent significant harm to the community and community members.”
Commissioner Stevens would also remain on the COVID decision-making Emergency Management sub-committee, which also includes Chief Public Health Professor Nicola Spurrier and Premier Peter Malinauskas.
The Commissioner said he was “buoyed” about his role potentially changing.
“That’s the best sign of progress in terms of managing the pandemic that we’ve seen for a long time,” he said.
Is there any criticism?
University of South Australia legal expert Sarah Moulds has raised concerns about the level of oversight included in the government’s proposed legislation.
A specialist in emergency COVID-19 lawmaking, Dr Moulds advocated for certain safeguards to be built into the Public Health Act amendments.
She pointed to Victoria’s controversial Pandemic Management Bill as a good example of legislation that allowed speedy response to emergency situations, while also being transparent and accountable.
“Really significantly, [the Victorian parliament] set up a pandemic response oversight committee,” she said.
“If they think that one of the ministers, or one of the delegates or public servants have gone too far, that committee of parliamentarians can then say, ‘Hey, the parliament needs to have another look at this’.”
She also said Victoria’s legislation had a “disallowance” mechanism, which effectively allowed the parliament to cancel legislation it did not agree with.
“[Disallowance] is something that changed the Victorian debate from one of concern — about just embedding the powers given to police commissioners — into something that people felt was really going to bring out a diversity of views and safeguards,” she said.
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