Australia

Australians could now face prison if they break new rules to prevent the spread of COVID-19

People in Sydney's CBD this week. Source: AAP

After declaring a national biosecurity emergency, the Australian government has extra powers to enable it to respond to the spread of the coronavirus. Here's what it means for you.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison's declaration of a national biosecurity emergency means Health Minister Greg Hunt now has a broader range of powers to implement new controls to keep Australians safe.

But it means the general public can expect to see limits put on their freedoms and everyday choices.

On Wednesday, the Governor-General accepted the Commonwealth Government’s recommendation that a national biosecurity emergency be declared in Australia - the first time that has happened since the Biosecurity Act was passed in 2015. 

What is the Biosecurity Act? 

The Biosecurity Act is heavily modelled on the Quarantine Act, which has been in place for more than 100 years.

The broad powers its declaration of emergency gives aren’t new and are heavily regulated, but for the first time in Australia’s history, it has allowed the government to impose a directive on all Australians, asking them not to travel overseas. 

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"This is a once-in-a-100-year-type event," Mr Morrison said at a press conference on Wednesday.

"Life is changing in Australia, as it is changing all around the world. Life is going to continue to change. 

"The travel advice to every Australian is 'do not travel abroad. Do not go overseas'."

The first act under the new declaration was to prevent any international cruise ships from entering Australia’s ports for an initial 30 days. 

What will these rules mean for Australians? 

As well as impacting travel, the new rules restrict indoor gatherings to 100 people and outdoor ones to 500, with some exceptions. New overseas arrivals will not be able to visit aged care facilities for two weeks.

Associate Professor Amy Maguire, from the University of Newcastle's Law School, told SBS News that as governments around the world ramp up their responses, more and more of our regular activities will be curtailed or indefinitely postponed.

“In certain circumstances the health minister can make orders to restrict people entering and leaving places,” Dr Maguire said.

“[The health minister can potentially] have the power to lockdown and evacuate areas of society or the closure of premises.

“Most children’s sports and entertainments will be difficult or impossible to maintain.”

Is prison really a possibility? 

Speaking earlier in the day to the ABC, Dr Maguire said the declaration gave both Mr Hunt and the director of human biosecurity Dr Brendan Murphy the power to issue biosecurity controls.

If people break the government’s recommendations - for example by holding larger gatherings than stipulated - they are putting public health at risk, and that could result in police involvement, she said. 

“Potentially Australian Federal Police or state and territory police can be tasked with enforcing orders under this legislation, but we’re reliant on people being compliant voluntarily."

“If an individual is subject to an order and they refuse to comply, they can be charged with a criminal offence and there can be penalties including up to five years' imprisonment.”

How long will these new rules last? 

Under the Biosecurity Act, a state of emergency can only last for three months, after which it can be extended by the governor-general if the health minister believes it continues to threaten public health significantly.

This is likely to occur with COVID-19, with Mr Morrison flagging a potential six-month timeline within which the government is working to deal with the outbreak.

“We are looking at a situation of at least six months for how we deal with this,” he said. 

The full list of coronavirus measures announced by Mr Morrison can be accessed here

As of Tuesday afternoon, only people who have recently travelled from overseas or have been in contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case and experienced symptoms within 14 days are advised to be tested in Australia.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor, don’t visit, or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

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