Unclear and Inconsistent COVID Advice Leads to Unfair Penalties

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Lady Justice Covid

There are calls for an urgent review into COVID policies and quarantine policing after a Victorian couple in the middle of moving to Queensland were given conflicting advice, then penalised for doing what they genuinely thought was the right thing.

The story so far

Robyn Anderson and Robert Legg, both in their sixties, were given the green light to relocate from Melton, north-west of Melbourne, to Roma in regional Queensland on 16 July 2021 – the same day Queensland announced its border closure to Victoria.

The couple thought they were doing the right thing by commencing a 14 day quarantine when they arrived in Roma.

But four days later, police told them they had breached a public health order by incorrectly filling out forms.

They were then ordered into the local health facility for COVID testing, before being told they would have to quarantine in the Brisbane suburb of Chermside, 500 kilometres away, or risk further fines.

Couple tested ‘negative’ but remain in quarantine

After arriving at hotel quarantine in Chermside, both Robyn and Rob were told by Queensland Health they had tested negative to COVID, and their quarantine direction notice was revoked as a result.

But as they tried to leave, police forced them back into quarantine, where they remain to this day.

Neither police nor health authorities have explained why the couple’s declaration forms were incorrect.

The couple estimate that with fines, the cost of hotel quarantine and other transport-related costs associated with travelling from Roma to Brisbane, they’re out by $14,000 – a sum they will struggle to pay.

It’s still not clear, and nor has it been explained to the couple, exactly what they did wrong. 

Inconsistent health policies and policing

Last year, both the New South Wales and Victorian Police Forces came under fire from human rights organisations for the heavy-handed enforcement of unclear, inconsistent and overly oppressive public health orders.

And to many, it appears nothing has been learned from initial COVID-19 policing strategies.

In fact, the response of a number of state governments have been to broaden police powers and penalties, and to further limit people’s freedoms. In New South Wales, the government has even deployed Australian Defence Force personnel to assist police in enforcement efforts.

Military called in

While the ADF has been used throughout the pandemic to enforce border closure restrictions and hotel quarantine, the use of the army to control citizens as they go about their daily lives is an unprecedented escalation of policing in our state – and one that disturbs a significant portion of the public who understand that the traditional role of the military is to protect Australia from foreign forces, not turn on its own citizens.

There have been widespread calls for both police and the ADF to be ‘reasonable‘ in their approach to enforcing regulations too, with major concerns that exorbitant fines for those who  breach public health regulations have the potential to plunge many into further financial distress.

Heavy-handed policing is only serving to damage the credibility and legitimacy of both the police and the Government  at a time when both are trying to instil a sense of trust and cooperation.

Increasing lack of ‘trust’ in authorities

In fact, this authoritarian approach has the very real possibility of creating the opposite of what Governments are trying to achieve, and both community dissatisfaction and dissent are growing as a result.

This is exacerbated without a coherent national approach because we’ve got confusing Public Health Regulations which change frequently, and quickly, which differ from state-to-state, and are not always well communicated.

Lockdowns continue to be justified as a means to protect the population (and the health system) from the pandemic, and most Australians have resigned themselves to this, for the foreseeable future, but the unnecessarily tough police enforcement is actually creating a lot more harm than good in our communities.

Most of the policies that are still in place to manage COVID hotspots and outbreaks are the same as the original ones, or ramped up versions of the original ones, that were rushed out when the virus first hit Australian shores.

Now, as the second year of the pandemic stretches on, with no clear end in sight, it is time for Governments to review these measures because it is becoming clear that at the very least we need national oversight to ensure that Public Health Regulations are both fair and appropriate, and that enforcement measures are sensible and appropriate.

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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