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Extraordinary COVID-19 Powers To Be Wound Down

Hon Chris Hipkins

Minister for COVID-19 Response (Acting)

Hon Meka Whaitiri

Minister of Customs

· COVID-19 Public Health Response Act 2020 being significantly narrowed to allow for a limited set of public health measures, as a guard against new COVID-19 waves or variants

· This provides time to design future emergency epidemic response legislation

· New Zealand Traveller Declaration will no longer be required from Thursday

· The 7-day case isolation period and mask-wearing requirements for visitors in certain healthcare settings to remain for the time being as cases and hospitalisations tick up

The Government is winding down the extraordinary powers used to fight COVID-19 through the emergency phase of the response while retaining a small number of baseline measures to contain the spread of the virus, Acting Minister for COVID-19 Response Chris Hipkins announced today.

“Today is a significant milestone. The Government has been clear that the measures used to contain the spread of COVID-19 need to be proportionate to the risk of the virus, so it’s appropriate to wind down many of the extraordinary powers that are no longer needed,” Chris Hipkins said.

“What were once justified and served our country well should now be removed.

With these changes, the legal framework matches the risk.

“The Government is also revoking the Epidemic Notice, which represents a move away from emergency arrangements to long-term management of the virus. Now, we can manage the virus with tools such as widened availability of anti-virals, without having to resort to the most restrictive measures.

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“Ministers have been reviewing the COVD-19 Public Health Response Act 2020 to ensure it is fit for purpose now that we’re through the emergency response.

“The Government’s plan before the end of the year is to remove the most restrictive powers from the Act that are no longer required for the response, while still ensuring we can practically manage the ongoing impact of COVID-19.

“It will retain an ability to put in place case isolation periods and mask-wearing requirements and if necessary, requirements on travellers that can be called on if things change and we need to step up our response, but most other measures, including lockdowns, will be removed.

“Under the new plan, if other measures - beyond isolation periods, mask-wearing and traveller requirements - were needed we would need to pass new legislation to enable these.

“Keeping a basic legal framework in place provides sufficient time to consult on and design a replacement general pandemic piece of legislation that would set New Zealand in good stead for any future events, rather than having to start from scratch as we had to in 2020.

“When COVID arrived we had limited legislative tools to respond and new ones had to be created. It is critical that a legacy of this pandemic is a fit for purpose piece of pandemic legislation like we have for civil defence and natural disasters,” Chris Hipkins said.

Also ending on Thursday is the current requirement for travellers flying to New Zealand by air having to complete the online New Zealand Traveller Declaration.

Customs Minister Meka Whaitiri said the New Zealand Traveller Declaration (NZTD) has been a vital tool in supporting the safe re-opening of our borders.

“The NZTD is an integral part of modernising Aotearoa’s border experience and the New Zealand Customs Service is working with border agencies to replace the paper arrival card with the online NZTD system by June 2023,” Meka Whaitiri said.

Current COVID-19 measures

“Cabinet agreed yesterday to follow health advice and retain the 7-day isolation period for cases and mask-wearing requirements for visitors in certain healthcare settings for the time being,” Chris Hipkins said.

“These core measures remain important, with indications of an upward trend in cases and growing concern about new Omicron subvariants that are driving waves of infection overseas.

“We have seen a slight uptick in cases and hospitalisations in the last couple of weeks. This was to be expected, and for now, these tools continue to prove effective in dampening the impact of the virus on the health system and in protecting the most vulnerable.

“The next review of these measures will be by the end of November 2022.”

The changes to the COVID-19 Public Health Response Act 2020

The COVID-19 Public Health Response Act was introduced in 2020 to provide an extraordinary set of legislative powers that have enabled the Government’s response to COVID-19.

It provides the primary legal framework for implementing the mandatory public health measures used to manage the COVID public health crisis, and is time-limited, self-repealing in May 2023 unless done sooner.

As the risk presented by COVID-19 changes, retaining the full suite of powers currently in the Act is no longer justified.

The Government has decided to significantly narrow the powers available in the Act, with most of the extraordinary powers used to support earlier phases of the emergency response to be removed. Only a small subset of powers will be retained to support the ongoing management of COVID-19.

A continuation of these powers enables time for extensive public and stakeholder engagement on the design of a future enduring legislative framework for the management of pandemics. The continuation period will ensure findings from the inquiry into the Government’s response to COVID-19 can inform the design of this future framework.

List of public health measures to be removed from Act

  1. Movement restrictions beyond self-isolation requirements e.g. localised or national “lockdowns”
  2. Managed isolation and quarantine
  3. Worker vaccine mandates
  4. Capacity/Gathering limits
  5. My Vaccine Pass
  6. Requirement to display QR codes
  7. Record keeping for contact tracing purposes
  8. New Zealand Traveller Declaration System
  9. Entry restrictions at the border
  10. Vaccination requirements for travellers
  11. Testing – for people in self-isolation or who would otherwise be required to self-isolate

List of public health measures to be retained in the Act for current or potential future use

  1. Self-isolation (for cases, household contacts, close contacts)
  2. Mask use

And for those travelling to New Zealand

  1. Mask use on inbound flights to New Zealand
  2. Pre-departure and/or post-arrival testing requirements
  3. Requirement for airline/ship operator to prevent passengers who have not complied with pre-departure travel requirements
  4. Not boarding a flight to New Zealand while exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms or if under a public health order in another country or if currently positive for COVID-19
  5. Self-isolation and self-quarantine for people arriving from at risk countries (or potentially from anywhere),
  6. Provision of travel history and contact information to support contact tracing.

To be clear retaining these powers in the Act does not mean they will be used, rather that they can be if required. Currently the Government is only utilising self-isolation and mask use to contain the spread of the virus.

Most enforcement powers to enforce the measures will remain, although the powers of warrantless entry to private dwelling houses and marae, and powers to close roads and public places will be removed. The maximum penalties for both infringement and criminal offences will be reduced.

If there is an escalation of COVID-19 risk after the Act is amended, and a broader suite of mandatory public health measures were needed, emergency legislation would need to be passed to enable additional measures to be implemented.

The Health Act could be used to support initial containment efforts while legislation is passed, such as some movement restrictions if the COVID-19 situation had escalated to the point of again being considered an urgent public health crisis.

© Scoop Media

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