Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has flighted far-reaching proposals to change the National Health Act’s regulations on notifiable diseases, which would give him the power to implement the kind of stringent restrictions imposed by the government in response to the coronavirus pandemic in terms of the Disaster Management Act for any disease deemed to be a major threat to public health.
In what a Business Day report says is an unusual move, Mkhize briefed Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Health on the proposed amendments to the regulations in a hastily convened meeting last night. Parliament is not legally required to approve regulations. The proposals were tabled at the National Health Council, and consultations were planned with other government departments, ahead of taking the proposal to the Cabinet, he said.
The intention is to create an alternative legal instrument to the regulations now in force under the State of Disaster declared in terms of the Disaster Management Act, which is overseen by the Department of Co-operative Governance & Traditional Affairs, said the Minister’s chief of staff, Sibusisiwe Ngubane. The State of Disaster – which can be extended by the government – ends on 15 October.
Ngubane emphasised that the proposed changes to the regulations include a requirement that the Health Minister consult the relevant Ministers of the portfolios affected by measures. The restrictions proposed include:
- Complete or partial closing of any public place including a place used for public receptions, tourist activities or events or public recreation, amusement or entertainment activities or events;
- Prohibition of movements between districts and provinces of people;
- Prohibitions of the use of ports of entry;
- Imposing curfews for people to remain indoors; and
- Closing of educational institutions.
The opposition Democratic Alliance said that the fact that these new amendments are being proposed 24 hours before the extended National State of Disaster under the Disaster Management Act expires is ‘deeply concerning’, reports BusinessTech.
“It gives an impression of a government desperate to retain power over its citizens even outside of a legitimate State of Disaster by giving powers to the minister which will allow him and the Executive to impose far-reaching restrictions,” said the DA’s Siviwe Garube.
“These regulations are attached to the existing National Health Act of 2003 and are now being amended to introduce sections akin to the Disaster Management Act to normalise snap government interventions,” she said.
“They give the minister of health – or more broadly, the executive – unlimited powers to impose restrictions that will impede civil liberties.”
More importantly, the DA said, these powers are being conferred to the minister via the “backdoor” of the regulations, and make no provision for Parliamentary oversight – “allowing the executive to impose restrictions without any checks and balances”.
“These regulations must be debated and adopted by the house and cannot be snuck through the back door, in the middle of the night, 24 hours before the State of Disaster is meant to expire,” she said.
“While a legitimate argument can be made that these regulations in question ought to be improved in order to better manage notifiable medical conditions like Covid-19 in the future, sections of these amendments are reminiscent of the regulations contained in the Disaster Management Act which give the executive unchecked powers.”
Full Business Day report
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