The ACT Government has passed specific COVID-19 management laws so the Territory can step down from a public health emergency but continue to manage the impacts of the pandemic.
An emergency declaration has been in force in the ACT since 16 March 2020 when there were two confirmed cases of COVID-19. It was meant to be enacted for five days.
But despite the passing of the Public Health Amendment Bill 2021 (No 2) earlier this week, the ACT won’t immediately drop the emergency declaration. It’s scheduled to come to an end on 11 August.
Minister for Health Rachel Stephen-Smith said she anticipated the new laws would be ready to go before then, but some work is required first.
Baseline public health measures, such as limited mask mandates and quarantine requirements for positive COVID-19 cases, remain in the ACT.
A pandemic management declaration will be similar to a public health emergency declaration but will provide greater allowances for scrutiny, oversight and greater human rights protections.
The new declaration can be enacted for 90 days at a time and the Act itself has a sunset clause of 18 months.
Once a pandemic management declaration is in effect, the Minister for Health can regulate gatherings, mandate face masks and check-ins, and record-keeping requirements.
The Chief Health Officer will also be able to direct positive cases and their close contacts to quarantine or isolate.
Vaccination mandates in some settings could be enacted by the Executive, which comprises two Ministers.
The government wouldn’t be able to impose lockdowns or order businesses to cease activity completely.
Any directions would also need to consider human rights and the advice of the Chief Health Officer, but the ultimate responsibility for public health directions will rest with the government.
If necessary, a public health emergency could be re-imposed.
This pandemic management legislation was first introduced to the ACT Legislative Assembly in December 2021.
It was then referred to the Standing Committee on Health and Wellbeing where it attracted a record number of submissions in opposition to it. However, most of the 1000 submissions received were from people who lived interstate or overseas or could not have an ACT residential address verified.
Many criticised what they perceived as government overreach and any law which would allow governments to impose or create vaccine mandates.
The hospitality sector also opposed it, arguing the government no longer required the power to regulate public and private gatherings, activities and businesses outside an emergency situation.
Human rights advocates welcomed the bill.
Some amendments to the initial bill were made following the committee inquiry.
Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee had also sought to move amendments of her own, but the government ultimately rejected them, saying they were largely impractical.
“An argument can be made that we do need a way forward on pandemic management that sits between business as usual and a public health emergency,” she told the Assembly.
“However, it is my view that the proposed bill doesn’t quite get the balance right between assuring public safety and safeguarding individual rights and freedoms.”
Ms Lee wanted greater reviews for vaccine exemption decisions and to remove the ability of the Chief Health Officer to make a direction that would directly impact an individual.
The Health Minister argued this was standard practice for health directions made in relation to managing notifiable diseases – including those currently being enacted interstate for individuals who have contracted monkeypox.