Policing and public health directions

As in other States and Territories, the ACT’s Chief Health Officer (CHO) has issued a number of public health directions since early March aimed at limiting and controlling any spread of COVID‑19. Though many of the restrictions implemented by these directions have begun to ease recently, their effects and those directions that remain still significantly limit human rights.

Measures in the directions that have limited rights include requiring self-isolation for people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19; controls on visiting residential aged care facilities; mandatory quarantine of people returning from overseas; closure of non-essential businesses; and limitations on the number of people at indoor and outdoor gatherings, including at residential premises. Where still in force, failing to obey these directions without reasonable excuse can be penalised by on-the-spot fines of up to $1000. As such, public health directions have given police and other authorised officials significant discretion in their implementation and in deciding whether an excuse for non-compliance is reasonable. As at 10 June 2020, there have been no fines or infringement notices issued in the ACT.

In this regard, we have welcomed ACT Policing’s commitment to a graduated and educative approach to ensuring compliance. Given the inherent risk that these directions may reinforce over-policing of marginalised groups, such as people with disability, older people, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, people who are homeless, children and young people, or victims of family violence, the Commission is calling for regular public data about enforcement activities and affected demographics. In times of emergency, such accountability and transparency are vital for identifying and correcting inadvertent impacts on vulnerable groups.

Resources concerning implementation of COVID-related public health restrictions:

Public Health Act 1997 (including Public Health Directions under ‘Regulations & Instruments’)

ACT Government, COVID-19 Website – Latest changes to public health restrictions

ACT Policing – COVID-19 Response (including media releases)

Human Rights Law Centre – Explainer: Police powers and COVID-19

COVID Policing – Summaries and reporting of police interactions and enforcement of public health restrictions (a project by legal and human rights advocacy organisations which allows people to lodge reports of interactions with police)

UK Joint Committee on Human Rights: Background Paper about COVID-19 and Human Rights / Briefing on Regulations and Lockdown