Update – isolating the Northern Territory – COVID-19, NT response, March 2020
The following is intended to provide commentary and general information only in relation to this topic as at 22 March 2020. Every effort is made to ensure the content is accurate; but no warranty is made as to the accuracy, currency or completeness of its content at any time.
What is it about?
On 18 Mar 20, the Northern Territory (NT) Minister for Health under s48 of the (NT) Public and Environmental Health Act (PEHA) declared “a public health emergency for the whole of the Territory arising out of the serious public health risk from Novel coronavirus (COVID-19)”.
The declaration remains in force for 5 days. Under the Act, the Minister needs to renew the declaration every 5 days. By further notice on 20 Mar 20, the Minister extended this declaration for 5 days from 23 Mar 20.
The Northern Territory government (NTG) said, effective 4pm on Tuesday, 24 March 2020, steps will be taken to introduced a formal declaration by the Chief Health Officer (CHO) under PEHA effecting “border restrictions and arrival requirements in response to the increasing threat of the coronavirus”.
What do you need to know?
In relation to the CHO’s declaration, the public information is as follows.
From 4.00pm on Tue, 24 Mar 20, people who arrive in the Northern Territory from interstate will be required to quarantine (self isolate) for 14 days. This will be enforced and penalties will apply.
The government says:
- “all arrivals including Territory residents will be screened and, if deemed a non-essential visitor, would be told to quarantine themselves.”
- “any member of a community who chooses to leave will also have to spend 14 days in isolation outside before being allowed to return.
- “arrivals will have to show they meet the essential arrival criteria to be granted an exemption.”
- “this will not impact the delivery of essential goods and services. Food and freight will continue.”
The NT Police will enforce the declaration. Everyone “will be required to go through a police control checkpoint to verify their medical status and purpose of their travel into the Territory.” Extra “measures will also be put in place to prevent the virus from being brought into the Territory’s remote Aboriginal communities.” The nature of these measures are pending.
The NTG has stated the following will be exempted:
- people involved in National and State Security and Governance.
- active Military personnel required to be on duty in the Territory while in the Territory.
- a member of the Commonwealth Parliament who is ordinarily resident in the Territory.
- health service providers and personnel.
- some transport, freight and logistics.
- specialist skills critical to maintaining key industries or businesses or infrastructure.
- emergency services.
- other individuals or groups will be able to apply for an exemption to the CHO on compassionate grounds (eg visiting a terminally ill relative or medical grounds or interstate travel for essential medical treatment).
Public and Environmental Health Act (NT) (PEHA)
This is powerful (and useful) legislation. Where activity might “result in the transmission of disease” or “otherwise a public health risk” the Northern Territory Minister can declare an activity a “public health risk activity”. The legislation applies the “precautionary principle”. If there is a serious public health risk (a public health risk involving significant potential harm to public health that is of a high impact; or is on a wide scale; or is or may be irreversible), “lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent, control or abate the risk.”
The legislation says decision making should be guided by: “(a) a careful evaluation to avoid, where practicable, serious harm to public health; and (b) an assessment of the consequences of the options available with regard to the risk of each consequence occurring.” Under the PEHA, if there are “circumstances of such seriousness and urgency exist that are, or threaten to cause, an immediate serious public health risk” and after consulting the Chairperson of the Territory Emergency Management Council, the Minister may, in writing, declare a public health emergency if the Minister is satisfied. As noted above a declaration was issued 18 Mar 20. This declaration was renewed.
Where an “emergency declaration is in force, the [Chief Health Officer] CHO may take the actions (including giving oral or written directions) the CHO considers necessary, appropriate or desirable to alleviate the public health emergency stated in the declaration”. The NTG states the CHO “has granted further directions under [PEHA] which allow Police to exercise their ability to control the entry of persons into the Territory to minimise the risk of spreading coronavirus and keep Territorians safe”.
A contravention of the declaration or direction is an offence (maximum penalty 400 penalty units ($62,800). The CHO may also publish “a notice about a person who is found guilty, or whose employee or agent is found guilty, of an offence against this Act relating to a public health risk or public health nuisance.”
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