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Pandemic preparedness legislation introduced

6 April 2006

Pandemic preparedness legislation introduced

New Zealand's work to prepare for possible flu pandemic has been significantly progressed by the introduction of new legislation in Parliament today.

The Law Reform (Epidemic Preparedness) Bill will improve the government's ability to respond to an outbreak of pandemic flu or a similar highly infectious disease capable of becoming an epidemic in New Zealand.

Health Minister Pete Hodgson said the bill was an important part of the whole-of-government work programme that is currently underway.

"The government has a responsibility to New Zealand families to do all we can to prepare for possible flu pandemic," Pete Hodgson said. "If a pandemic reaches New Zealand, we will have to be ready to deal with some of the most serious social and economic challenges we've faced in over a generation.

"The legislation introduced today will strengthen the government's ability to respond to a pandemic. While its provisions will only be used in a major emergency, it clarifies a number of important issues for businesses, government agencies and the wider community."

Last year Cabinet asked a number of departments to examine existing legislation and to identify any gaps that would hamper the government's ability to respond to the outbreak of pandemic flu or a serious epidemic.

The main issues addressed by the Bill involve amendments to the Health Act. The amendments mostly cover the need to update and clarify quarantine powers.

There are also a number of amendments to non-health legislation, including changes to the Social Security Act and Holidays Act.

"The Bill's introduction to the House provides an opportunity for all parties in Parliament to show leadership on pandemic planning. The government is open to all constructive suggestions about how this Bill can be improved and how our preparedness can be advanced."

Fact Sheet and Questions and Answers on the Law Reform (Epidemic Preparedness) Bill

Law Reform (Epidemic Preparedness) Bill

Purpose of the Bill

The purpose of this Bill is to ensure that, should there be a human outbreak of avian flu, or an outbreak of a similar infectious disease capable of becoming an epidemic, the Crown has powers available to it that will ensure a proper response can be made, even in the worst-case scenario. It's about management of a crisis.

This Bill will:

- Make pandemic influenza a quarantinable disease
- Enable quarantine powers at the border
- Clarify the emergency powers available to Medical Officers of Health and provide powers for the New Zealand Police to assist Medical Officers of Health
- Support action to prevent or manage a health emergency

- Enable the Prime Minister to issue a Gazette notice declaring that she or he is satisfied that the effects of the outbreak of an infectious disease are likely to disrupt essential governmental and business activity in New Zealand, or a stated part of New Zealand. This Gazette notice then triggers a range of possible actions including:

- Amend the Resource Management Act so that resource consent is not
necessary to establish community treatment centres, mass graves and so on for 24 months if there is an epidemic

- Amend Acts to provide
- temporary relief from use-of-money interest and penalties for taxpayers,
- the relaxation of immigration provisions, parole provisions, probation conditions, and
- the relaxation of benefit provisions, and providing for emergency benefits for people who would not usually be entitled

- Amend the Births Deaths and Marriages Registration Act so that doctors and appropriately qualified nurses can issues death certificates without having necessarily attended the person before death

Questions and Answers

Why are the changes being made ?

As part of a whole-of-government analysis, gaps have been identified in what is now an old piece of legislation, the Health Act 1956. These gaps impact on the Crown's ability to respond to an outbreak of human transmitted avian influenza or a similar highly infectious disease capable of becoming an epidemic or global pandemic.

This Bill closes these gaps with the main amendments to the Health Act. They clarify and modernise current powers so that a public health response is appropriate to modern society. They respond to World Health Organization advice, ensure Medical Officers of Health have clarity and certainty in their legislative authority to act in an emergency situation and are consistent with and support New Zealand's Pandemic planning efforts.

What are the main changes for health ?

The main amendments to the Health Act include:

- The inclusion of pandemic influenza to the list of quarantinable diseases, so quarantine powers can apply to pandemic influenza. Currently quarantine powers are only available for yellow fever, cholera and the plague
- An order in Council provision to allow new emerging diseases to be added quickly to the list of quarantinable diseases
- Periods of detention and release under the quarantine powers have been clarified
- Contact tracing powers have been clarified so that they apply to quarantinable diseases

- The powers of the New Zealand Police to assist Medical Officers of Health in a health emergency have been clarified
- Provisions enabling testing at the border of people suspected of having or being in contact with a quarantinable disease have been strengthened by a move from regulations and insertion into the Health Act
- The language in sections 70-72 emergency provisions have been modernised e.g to ensure the power to close public places encompasses the type of places where people gather in modern society

- Provides for the development and implementation of a policy to prioritise scarce medical supplies in an emergency and protect those following that policy
- Medical Officers of Health can redirect aircrafts that have landed in New Zealand to another place in New Zealand for the purpose of effectively managing the disease threat
- Provides for the relaxation of statutory provisions, administrated by the Ministry of Health, in an emergency and authorised by the Governor-General by an Order in Council, if an epidemic notice is in force. e.g. emergency measures to enable mass vaccinations where the normal vaccination workforce has been severely affected by a pandemic

What about other areas?

Key non-health amendments all triggered by an epidemic notice issued by the Prime Minister include:

- Births Deaths Marriages Act - enables appropriately qualified nurses (as well as doctors) to issue certificates as to the cause of death to enable timely burials

- Social Security Act - provisions to pay support payment outside normal requirements for certain beneficiaries and assist overseas travellers who cannot return home
- Holidays Act - waiver of the 14 day notice requirement for employees to take annual leave in certain circumstances

- various other alterations to parole hearings, probationary service, immigration visa extensions, some tax provisions, etc generally designed to allow for social distancing.

Who will decide when these powers should be used?

- Quarantine powers and non-emergency powers to manage infectious diseases are currently available to Medical Officers of Health. The Bill does not change this.

- Emergency powers under the Health Act are currently available to Medical Officers of Health if a Civil Defence emergency is declared or if the Minister of Health authorises their use. The Bill does not change this.

- Amendments to the non-health legislation in the Bill can only be triggered if the Prime Minister, on the recommendation of the Director-General of Health, declares that the effects of an outbreak of a stated infectious disease are likely to significantly disrupt essential government and business activity in New Zealand. This is known as an "epidemic notice", which may remain in effect for up to three months. The exception to this is the amendment to the Social Security Act 1964 enabling financial assistance to visitors to New Zealand who cannot return home because of the effects of an outbreak of an infectious disease overseas. This is triggered by the Minister for Social Development and Employment.

- A new mechanism is provided for in the Bill to relax any statutory requirement or restriction affecting disease management that is imposed by an enactment administered by the Ministry of Health. This power is triggered by an Order in Council issued by the Governor-General provided an epidemic notice, issued by the Prime Minister, is in force.

ENDS

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