Time Limits — Statement by Minister for Environment
HON STEPHEN DAWSON (Mining and Pastoral — Minister for Environment) [5.22 pm]: I wish to advise the house that the Mandatory Testing (Infectious Diseases) Amendment (COVID-19 Response) Bill 2020 will be dealt with as a bill in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Last night and this morning, the government consulted with all party leaders, and following those discussions, pursuant to the temporary order agreed to by the house on 31 March 2020, I advise the following maximum time limits for each stage of the bill: the second reading stage, 90 minutes; the committee stage, 100 minutes; adoption of report, five minutes; and the third reading stage, 10 minutes.
Resumed from 12 May.
(Comments and speeches from various members)
HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [5.29 pm]: I rise as the lead speaker for the Greens to speak on the Mandatory Testing (Infectious Diseases) Amendment (COVID-19 Response) Bill 2020. Obviously, our time to scrutinise this bill has been severely truncated; the Greens received a draft of the bill and the explanatory memorandum only two days ago and a briefing only yesterday. That is unfortunate, particularly as the parent act is undergoing its five-year statutory review, and I think the timing of this bill will mean that Parliament will miss out on the opportunity to apply whatever learnings come out of that review. That is a pity, but I recognise that there is not much to be done about that—no-one asked for this pandemic to occur.
This bill makes two amendments to the Mandatory Testing (Infectious Diseases) Act 2014, which, as I said in my contribution to a similar bill only yesterday, the Greens supported at the time of its passage. The first amendment to the act is to amend all references to blood sampling to include the testing of other types of bodily secretions from a person. That will have the effect of removing the limitation on the type of sample that can be taken from a person—that is, it will not be limited simply to blood samples. This will provide the capacity to find out whether someone is carrying an infectious disease, which is currently defined under the act as HIV, hepatitis B, hepatitis C and any prescribed disease. As I understand it, the reason this is classified as a COVID-19 bill is that the intention is to classify COVID-19 as a prescribed disease. The reason for the amendment to the type of sample that can be taken, of course, is that testing for COVID-19 is not via blood sample but via other secretions, most notably mucus secretions. Of course, amending the bill to provide for the taking and testing of any sample from a person will potentially have the effect of opening the door to the government prescribing a much wider variety of infectious diseases for mandatory testing in the future, and not just the three diseases already prescribed and COVID-19, which is intended to be prescribed. I therefore ask the minister to confirm for the record that the current intention is to prescribe COVID-19 only. From the briefing, I understand that although the bill contains no sunset clause, it is nonetheless the government’s intention to remove that listing when the pandemic is over. If that is the case, I would appreciate being able to get that on the record.
The second amendment the bill makes is to change the definition of “qualified person”. The act requires sampling to be undertaken by a doctor, nurse or qualified person. Currently, “qualified person” is defined to mean a person who has been trained by a registered training organisation, within the meaning of the Australian Quality Training Framework, to take samples of blood from other people. Again, I understand from the briefing that that is a redundant qualification, and therefore the opportunity is being taken to update that definition. Under the new definition, a qualified person will be a holder of a certificate 3 in pathology collection or its interstate or overseas equivalent, or a person or class of persons prescribed for the taking of that type of sample. I have some concerns about the second part of that definition. No clear justification has been given for allowing regulations to be made about who can take samples, but perhaps one could be given in the course of the minister’s reply. I understand from the briefing that the government has no current intention to introduce any such regulations and that the reason this is being included is to effectively futureproof those provisions.
I will quickly turn to the issue of COVID-19 testing of police officers. Police officers are eligible for COVID-19 testing at any time. This is good and proper and as it should be. They do not have to wait for symptoms or contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case. That is because the nature of their work involves their exposure to situations in which there is a potential risk of COVID-19 transmission. As we know, police deal with victims of crime and witnesses to traumatic events. Often the people they are dealing with are highly stressed and might be breathing quite hard, quite frankly, which is something that we know can transmit COVID-19. We know that police officers have no choice but to be in close proximity to people. They have to apprehend people who are in the process of committing crimes and they go to all kinds of places to do their work. We know that our police officers get spat on and bitten. Indeed, I understand from the briefing that in 90 of the 130 times the act has been used recently, it was because the officer had been spat on or bitten. Because of the way in which the police interact with the general public every day and because COVID-19 is highly infectious, the Greens would like it to be absolutely crystal clear for the record that reasonable grounds for disease testing should not be interpreted to mean, and is certainly not intended by Parliament to be interpreted to mean, that any and every person who happens to cough, sneeze, breath heavily or, indeed, just breathe within 1.5 metres of a police officer is liable to be mandatorily tested for COVID-19. Obviously, that would be an absurd overreach. I would like some assurance that there is absolutely no intention that it should ever be interpreted in that way. The briefing, the second reading speech and the debate in the other place have all made it very clear that it is certainly not the intended statutory interpretation, and that the intended statutory interpretation is that mandatory testing for COVID-19 will be possible only if the person has assaulted the police officer by coughing or spitting at them. I ask the minister to please confirm for the record that that is the intended statutory interpretation.
While we are talking about statutory interpretation, I would like to take the opportunity to have the intended statutory interpretation of section 26 of the act, which authorises a doctor, nurse or qualified person and a person helping them to use any reasonably necessary force for the taking of the sample, to be confirmed for the record. This is another matter on which I received reassurance during the briefing. Similar to the debate we had in this place yesterday, I want on the record a full interpretation of how “reasonable force” is intended to be interpreted. As I understand it, the use of reasonably necessary force relates only to a situation in which the person is cooperative, and that if they are uncooperative, the testing will not proceed at that moment and the person may be charged with noncompliance. Of course, we canvassed this issue during debate on a similar bill yesterday, but I think it is important to get that on the record once again. I ask the minister to please confirm that, because if a person is noncompliant, it would be really unsafe to proceed with testing. If a person has COVID-19, resistance and exertion by them would, indeed, have the effect of increasing the risk of infection to whomever is there when the sample is taken. In terms of testing for HIV, hepatitis B or hepatitis C, there is, of course, the risk of needlestick injury if the person is uncooperative, even if it turns out that they do not have any form of bloodborne disease.
The Greens are not going to oppose the passage of this bill. We are content to allow it to pass. That is because, unlike the Prisons Amendment Bill 2020, which we debated earlier, the act already contains a range of safeguards. I remind members that it was those safeguards that led us to support the passage of the act during the last term. Those safeguards, together with confirmation of the statutory interpretation that I confidently expect to receive shortly from the minister during his second reading reply, gives the Greens confidence once again that a better balance will hopefully be struck in the testing regime under the Mandatory Testing (Infectious Diseases) Act.
(Comments and speeches from various members)
Progress reported and leave granted to sit again, pursuant to standing orders.