COVID-19: NSW introduces raft of emergency laws to parliament

By Shannon Jenkins

Tuesday March 24, 2020

Police will receive more powers, prisoners may be released early, and council elections could be postponed under a range of amendments introduced by the New South Wales government on Tuesday.

New legislation was introduced to state parliament in an emergency bill which aimed to “combat the spread of COVID-19” and “boost community safety”.

The COVID-19 Legislation Amendment (Emergency Measures) bill would allow NSW Health to use private health facilities when needed, and to streamline the establishment of State Vaccine Centres to better manage the flu season and COVID-19.

Under the changes, police would also be given the power to “take immediate action” on suspected breaches of COVID-19 public health orders, including returning individuals to their home or place of quarantine.

Other amendments would allow some of the state’s prisoners to be released early on parole, according to attorney general Mark Speakman.

“These extraordinary measures are only to be used to respond to the threat of COVID-19, and would allow the Commissioner of Corrective Services to prioritise vulnerable offenders and others who pose a low risk to the community for consideration for conditional release,” he said in a statement.

“Offenders sentenced for the most serious offences cannot be released under these changes. Any conditional release would be subject to strict parole conditions, as well as any other requirements the commissioner considers appropriate .. the commissioner may prohibit or restrict any person from entering or visiting correctional facilities.”

Changes to the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act would ensure developments that protect the health, welfare and safety of the public during COVID-19 proceed “without the normal development approvals”.

Local government minister Shelley Hancock would be given the power to postpone the September council elections for 12 months, with a possible further extension to 31 December 2021, and councils would be permitted to hold official meetings electronically.

In response to the public’s panic-buying, supermarkets would be able to stock their shelves and trade throughout the Easter long weekend and ANZAC Day.

Speakman said this would give customers confidence that essential goods would not run out, particularly when combined with the state’s recent decision to lift the supermarket delivery curfew.

“The bill will also protect staff from being compelled to work on these additional days; it will be their choice to work and earn additional income, or to enjoy the holidays,” he added.

Changes to the justice system would include the ability for Supreme and District Courts to order judge-alone trials, and a greater use of technology to “maintain social distancing” in courtrooms.

Vulnerable people would also be exempt from jury summons, and provisional Apprehended Domestic Violence Orders would be extended from 28 days to six months.

The NSW Children’s Guardian would also be granted the power to extend working with children check clearances where appropriate “to help prevent any disruption to services because of COVID-19”.

Speakman said the changes would ensure essential public amenities continue to operate effectively “while maintaining the wellbeing of our frontline workers and the broader public”.

“The threat posed by COVID-19 is rapidly evolving, and the needs of families, businesses, workers and governments are changing every day,” he said.

“These temporary measures will help ensure we are ready for any development. If urgent action is required to ensure the health and safety of the people of NSW, this bill will help to empower the relevant experts and public bodies to make tough and swift decisions in the best interests of the community.”

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