NSW Police rule out fines for Hillsong, Premier says youth event defied 'spirit of the rules'

Pictures and videos posted on social media this week showed crowds of people singing and dancing without masks in scenes some on social media said were reminiscent of a music festival.

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet. Source: AAP

Hillsong has apologised for giving the "perception" it wasn't playing its part in keeping NSW safe amid its huge COVID-19 outbreak.

NSW Health ordered Hillsong to immediately stop singing and dancing at its summer camp in Newcastle, after videos emerged showing hundreds of attendees without masks engaged in those activities inside a large tent while a band performed onstage.

The camp began days after changes to public health orders took effect, banning singing and dancing at music festivals and forcing the cancellation of events including the Tamworth Country Music Festival and the Grapevine Gathering in the Hunter Valley.

On Friday afternoon, NSW Police said no fine would be issued.

NSW Police Acting Assistant Commissioner Peter Glynn said: "Following discussions with organisers and after consultation with NSW Health, no infringement will be issued."

Singing and dancing at large events presents a high risk of COVID-19 transmission, Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant said, amidst an outbreak which has seen the state record tens of thousands of cases a day.

While the church again defended the event in a statement on Friday, saying it was not similar to a music festival, it also apologised.

"We regret giving any perception that we were not playing our part to keep NSW safe and we sincerely apologise to the community at large," the statement said.

"Our heart is for people, and loving and caring for all people is at the core of our church."

The statement said the camp events differ from festivals in that they are alcohol-free, held outdoors, and the students attending each camp - about 200 - are part of the same social network.

"Over a three-day duration the percentage of time spent singing is minor," it said.

Premier Dominic Perrottet said the health minister had been advised by his legal team that Hillsong had broken the rules.

"If the legal teams believe that it was in breach of the public health order, then my expectation would be that a fine would be issued," he said.

'If we have to tighten loopholes, we will'

The premier joined a chorus of Australian music acts in saying he was shocked and outraged to see the footage.

"I echoed the frustration and anger other people right across the state felt," he said.

"Even if technically it was within the rules, it certainly wasn't in the spirit of the rules.

"If we have to tighten loopholes, we will."

NSW Police earlier on Friday said police would liaise with organisers "to ensure future compliance".

"NSW Police will liaise with organisers... to ensure future compliance with the Public Health Orders after NSW Health deemed the location to be a major recreational facility," a NSW Police spokesperson said.

Pictures and videos posted on the Christian church’s social media accounts from a three-day summer camp showed crowds of people without masks in scenes some said were reminiscent of a music festival.

NSW Health said in a statement on Thursday night it had requested Hillsong “immediately stop singing and dancing” at the camp being held in the Newcastle area, as it was in breach of the public health order.

“While the Order does not apply to religious services, it does apply to major recreation facilities and this event is clearly in breach of both the spirit and intent of the Order, which is in place to help keep the community safe,” Health Minister Brad Hazzard said.

A major recreation facility is defined in the order as “a building or place used for large-scale sporting or recreation activities that are attended by large numbers of people, whether regularly or periodically,” NSW Health said.

Hillsong Church defends event

A Hillsong statement on Thursday defended the event, saying it was “not similar to a music festival in any way.”

“Our camps involve primarily outdoor recreational activities including sports and games. We follow strict COVID procedures and adhere to government guidelines. Outdoor Christian services are held during the camp but these are only a small part of the program, and any singing is only a small part of each service,” they said in a statement.

“A video circulating on social media today reflects a few minutes of this part of the program.”

The statement said safety information was provided to participant parents prior to camp, and a raft of measures were in place to ensure the event was COVID-safe.

“All students and workers undertook rapid antigen testing before attending the camp. Face masks are compulsory during travel on buses to and from camp, all workers serving food are wearing masks, and a deep clean of the facilities was undertaken between the two camps,” it said.

“Sanitation stations are positioned around the site while paramedics and testing capabilities are on-site 24 hours per day. Isolation protocols have been developed for positive cases or close contacts at camp, and where required all attendee details are registered for contact tracing.”

'Double standards'

Among those to voice anger at the "the double standards" of rules around live entertainment events was singer and former Australian Eurovision representative, Montaigne.

"Takes my breath away," she wrote on Twitter.

Charlestown MP Jodie Harrison wrote on Facebook she was “deeply disturbed” by footage from the camp.

“At any normal time, singing and dancing at a camp would be great - but to do it now is straight out irresponsible,” she said on Facebook.

It comes as NSW recorded its deadliest day of the pandemic so far on Friday, posting 29 COVID-19-related deaths.

Some 63,018 new COVID-19 cases were also recorded, though NSW Health cautioned some of those cases were the same positive cases reported numerous times from multiple rapid antigen tests (RATs) and PCR tests.

The number of hospitalisations and those in ICU also increased.

There were 2,525 COVID-19 patients in hospital and 184 in ICU on Friday, compared to 2,383 and 182 on Thursday.

Additional reporting by SBS News.

6 min read
Published 14 January 2022 at 8:44am
Source: AAP,SBS