Public health emergency gives 'immense powers' for immense challenge

It's been a question people have been asking this week.

The province has declared a public health emergency — but why not declare a state of emergency?

Health Minister John Haggie addressed the question at a media briefing on Monday.

"There is nothing from a public health point of view that we need to do now, are doing, or foresee having to do, that can't be done under our new piece of legislation [the Public Health Protection and Promotion Act]," Haggie said.

Ron Penney agrees.

He is a former provincial deputy minister of justice, and was involved in emergency planning during his time as top civil servant with St. John's city council.

Eddy Kennedy/CBC

"The declaration of a public health emergency is the right tool for this situation," Penney said.

The new health protection act came into effect last July, which Penney says is "very fortunate."

The law gives the minister of health — on the advice of the chief medical officer of health — the ability to declare a public health emergency.

"Once the declaration is made, the chief medical officer of health is given immense powers to deal with the public health emergency," Penney said.

That includes closing schools and places of assembly, which has happened, and issuing orders to restrict travel to and from the province, or within the province.

Penney said the act has "very broad power to 'take any measure… necessary for the protection of the health of the population in a public health emergency.'"

You are one plane flight away from a significant public health problem, and we need legislation that can adapt to and deal with that. - Health Minister John Haggie in 2018

In addition, there is the authority to insist that people isolate themselves, and the ability to go to court for apprehension orders for someone who doesn't comply with a quarantine order.

Declaring a state of emergency — under a separate piece of legislation, called the Emergency Services Act — would give "extensive" powers to government officials. But those powers "don't meet all the needs arising from a pandemic," according to Penney.

The premier and health minister have stressed this week that the public health emergency route is the best one to take to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

In fact, it is nothing new for John Haggie to tout the potential impact of the new law — he was doing so as far back as November 2018, when it was first introduced in the House of Assembly.

"We are living in a world with SARS and Ebola," the health minister told the legislature at the time.

"You are one plane flight away from a significant public health problem, and we need legislation that can adapt to and deal with that."

Haggie stressed that the public health emergency powers in the new law "really give the chief medical officer of health considerable scope in acting promptly to protect populations."

Province could have taken swifter action, Penney says

While Penney agreed the new law is the best tool for the COVID-19 crisis, he says he believes the province did not move as swiftly as it could have to use those powers.

"My concern with what has happened so far is that we have been too slow to act, and it is known that days matter," he said.

For example, the decision to close schools was only made after some private schools and Memorial University decided to close; visitors were barred at long-term care homes after private homes took that action; and direction to all out-of-province travellers to self-isolate could have happened earlier.

"I recognize that these are difficult decisions, but I think we should have been much more aggressive earlier," he said.

The public health emergency lasts 14 days, but can be renewed in 14 day extensions — something Penney predicts will happen many times.

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