The NT Government has seemingly revoked fines for not adhering to the 1.5 metre social distancing rule late on Thursday afternoon, in a directive that came with no public announcement.
The change was made shortly before a mass gathering in Darwin for the Black Lives Matter protest, although government officials did not make the public aware and continued to warn of the need to “abide by public health principles”.
Organisers of the rally had told the ABC on Friday that they were encouraging attendees – estimated on Saturday to have been more than 1000 people – to practice social distancing.
Chief Health Officer Hugh Heggie’s new orders were made at 5:38 pm on Thursday, through Section 37 of the Chief Health Officer Directions document, which went online and was therefore technically public – although no official announcement from the Health Minister Natasha Fyles, the Health Department, Chief Minister or SecureNT appears to have been made.
It’s understood the change should have been part of the stage three easing of restrictions that came into place on June 5 and is a ‘catching up measure’. So while a health policy of 1.5 metre social distancing is retained and considered important by NT Health, it seems the fines are not part of the legislation anymore.
Because the directive is written under the Public and Environmental Health Act 2011, it is not straight forward but it was all the information that was made pubic.
“COVID-19 Directions (No. 37) 2020. Revocation of Directions for Physical Distancing,” it stated. “I, Hugh Crosbie Heggie, Chief Health Officer, under section 52 of the Public and Environmental Health Act 2011 and with reference to section 43 of the Interpretation Act 1978, revoke the instrument entitled ‘COVID-19 Directions (No. 29) 2020 – Directions for Physical Distancing’, dated 1 May 2020.”
The quiet change revoked Directive 29 from May 1, that convolutedly indicated that fines were to be handed out if people didn’t comply with directions, if they “(continue) to fail to comply”, and if they are “outdoors”.
It further stated: “The person must comply with the physical distancing principles as published from time to time on https://coronavirus.nt.gov.au/steps-torestart/roadmap-new-normal#section1.”
But the hospitality industry said the rule changes should also be applied to restaurants, pubs and cafes moving forward.
“It appears today’s large protest with little to no distancing has set the new benchmark,” said Hospitality NT CEO Alex Bruce.
The NT Independent is unaware of anyone ever being issued a $1,099 fine for breaching social distancing rules, however Lola’s Pergola in Cullen Bay was fined $5,495 after allegedly repeatedly not serving meals to drinkers and for patrons not being seated while drinking alcohol under stage two restrictions.
According to the NT Government’s COVID-19 site, under stage three, “you should not come closer than 1.5m (for more than 15 minutes) to other people such as workmates or those who you may encounter in any place outside of your home, other than those who you are already regularly, and necessarily in contact with to perform your work duties, such as a work partner with whom you travel regularly in a vehicle.
“Physical distancing remains one of the most important measures that we all can take to suppress and control the COVID-19 pandemic”.
It also states that major events and public gatherings of over 500 people must submit a COVID-19 event safety plan and receive formal approval from Dr Heggie prior to the event proceeding to demonstrate the commitment to the key principles of the “new normal”.
Events and public gatherings of less than 500 people must do the same, but do not need Dr Heggie’s approval.
The website said Dr Heggie may place further requirements on these activities with any requirements specified in his directions.
But it also further states, “fines can be issued by police or environmental health officers for failing to abide by the chief health officer directions issued under section 56 of the Public and Environmental Health Act 2011. This includes failing to comply with quarantine requirements, breaching a bio security checkpoint or failing to follow any other public health direction.”
While there have been no new active cases of COVID-19 in the Territory since last month – with the last person announced as virus free by Health Minister Natasha Fyles on May 21 – people continue to arrive from interstate and into forced quarantine for two weeks.
That will change on Monday when visitors were be allowed to self-isolate at their selected residence.
On Thursday, NT Police said in a statement that a 28-year-old was fined for breaking quarantine in a Darwin hotel and on Wednesday a 23-year-old woman was fined for leaving her Alice Springs hotel.
In the Thursday statement, police said there had been 15,171 quarantine compliance checks and 64 people fined.
The NT Independent asked the NT Government for an explanation of the changes and if anyone had ever been fined for not social distancing.
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