4 Aug 2020

Government can mandate similar measures to Melbourne, expert says

12:03 pm on 4 August 2020

Victoria is bringing in tough new measures in Melbourne to curb the spread of Covid-19, including a curfew and the requirement to wear masks. An expert says the NZ government could do the same if needed.

A group of police and soldiers patrol the Docklands area of Melbourne on August 2, 2020, after the announcement of new restrictions to curb the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

A group of police and soldiers patrol the Docklands area of Melbourne on August 2, 2020, after the announcement of new restrictions to curb the spread of the Covid-19. Photo: AFP

Otago University law professor Andrew Geddis said Victoria's level 4 lockdown isn't actually as strict as New Zealand's was but the government now has the powers to enact more specific controls on the population.

He said New Zealand's law "undoubtedly" could require people to wear masks if the government mandated it.

"Under the Health Act, it wasn't clear there was a power available to the Director-General of Health to order masks. You can order people to isolate and so on, but there was no specific power to say 'and wear PPE or masks'.

"The new act has a much more general provision where people can be told to do things in order to stop the spread of the disease. If there's good evidence wearing masks can stop the spread of the disease, that can be ordered."

The new legislation has what's called a section 11 order which, if people fail to comply with rules, it can be prosecuted as an offence.

"People who escape quarantine are being charged with breaching section 11 orders. The same thing would apply if the order said you must wear a mask and you don't."

Part of that power means police can fine people up to $300 on the spot rather than drag it through the courts.

Geddis said Melbourne somewhat "fudged" their first lockdown by not having clear rules around leaving the house, which is why they've introduced a curfew this time around.

"With New Zealand, because we're much tighter on lockdown and there's so few reasons for being outside, no one was going out at night anyway.

He said that New Zealanders were relatively compliant with the first lockdown but they might find it harder to do it a second time around if the need arose.

"That's why it's so important, first of all, that border measures work - so we don't have to go into lockdown - and secondly, if some cases do start to show up in the community, we're able to very quickly contact trace and catch people so that the whole community doesn't have to go into lockdown.

"That's our best defence rather than saying 'oh we could always do this over again' because people might not."

Geddis said the act requires a proportionate response to the threat of Covid spread so it'd be very unlikely for the country to shutdown if a case showed up in one area or region. Instead, the act is specifically designed to be able to shutdown highly localised areas.

He said that, while iwi roadblocks stretched the law, police went to great measures to keep them within legality.

"[They] recognised that this virus is such a huge threat to Māori, and Māori have such an experience with the influenza epidemic that killed so many, that Māori have a particular key role in protecting themselves and their people.

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