Civil Defence promises transparency as more powers 'may be required' to combat COVID-19

Civil Defence is promising more transparency about the advice given to the Government about enacting special powers in legislation to combat COVID-19, and admits that more powers "may be required".  

Director of Civil Defence Emergency Management Sarah Stuart-Black told the Epidemic Response Committee on Thursday that there "may be other powers required as we go forward from here" but "only when absolutely required". 

National MP Nikki Kaye asked to see the advice given to Civil Defence Minister Peeni Henare before his decision to trigger a state of national emergency on March 25, giving authorities special powers to manage the coronavirus outbreak. 

Kaye said one of her "core concerns" is around transparency, and the "issue of where powers are being derived from" under the Health Act 1956, the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act 2002 (CDEM Act), and the Epidemic Preparedness Act 2006.

The Health Act 1956, for example, allows the Government to require people to be isolated, quarantined or disinfected, force people to remain where they are, and requisition equipment, vehicles and buildings. 

The CDEM Act allows officials to close or restrict access to roads or public places, conserve essential supplies and regulate traffic, enter onto and evacuate premises, and requisition equipment, materials and assistance. 

While declarations of emergency have been made before - such as in 2011 after the Christchurch earthquake - the powers utilised in this case are extensive, as they coincide with the Epidemic Preparedness Act 2006, to place the whole country in quarantine. 

"At the heart of this, it cuts to the decision-making around a national state of emergency," Kaye said, as she asked the Civil Defence leaders to provide more clarity about exactly what powers are being exercised and why. 

She said without those details, it's "very difficult for New Zealanders to potentially understand what the criteria is for lockdown to potentially be lifted". 

She asked Henare if he's prepared to release the advice because it's of "huge public interest". 

"We live in a democracy and I will where I can am happy to comply with the release of such information," Henare said. "I followed the process that was in the legislation. It was robust and all of the right boxes were ticked."

Stuart-Black said the combination of the Health Act, CDEM Act and Pandemic Preparedness Act "enabled most of the powers that are anticipated to be needed, with the wide-ranging measures required for the level 4 of the four levels of the alert system". 

She said it was "recognised that there might be things required outside of the health provisions that can be provided with the national state of emergency and unlocking those powers, so to work in a complementary basis". 

She said the powers under the health legislation will always be used first, and that powers under the CDEM Act will only be used if there is a specific requirement that isn't provided in the Heath Act. 

"That's one of the safeguards," she said. "But also, we do take that responsibility hugely seriously."

Since the state of national emergency was declared, she said CDEM powers have been used to requisition a carpark to be used as a community-based assessment centre, and to close businesses that were operating illegally during lockdown.

Similar transparency concerns were raised by Canterbury University Professor John Hopkins, a disaster law specialist, who said he's concerned about police sending "mixed messages" to the public during lockdown, by using 'discretion' when it comes to people not complying with the rules. 

Prof Hopkins said the rules police are going by should be made available to the public, and once they are available, they should be scrutinised by lawmakers "making them more likely to be accepted by the public".