Parliament, late Tuesday night, passed amendments to the nation’s public health law, legislating fines of up to EC$2,000 for each day that quarantine is breached.
Minister of Health, Senator Luke Browne, who presented the legislation, said it was “fairly consequential” and Opposition Leader, Godwin Friday, gave the support of opposition lawmakers.
The 1977 Public Health Act provided for a maximum fine of EC$250 and imprisonment without the option of a fine for not more than three months or both.
“Well, you know $250 ain’t going cause anybody to blink these days but in 1977, it might have been a different proposition,” Browne told Parliament.
The law also speaks to the quarantine of items, such as baggage, containers, and goods and Browne said that a business that contravenes the revised law can be fined up to EC$10,000, while an individual can be fined EC$2,000 and imprisoned for us to six months
Where the offence is committed or continues to be committed on more than one day, the person is liable to be convicted for a separate offence for each day on which the offence is committed or continued.
A corporation that commits a second or subsequent offence is liable to a fine of EC$50,000 and in the case of an individual, a fine of $10,000 and one year in prison.
Browne said that since dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, the government has had to interact with the Public Health Act of 1977.
Earlier on, there was an adjustment made to the list of infectious disease to include COVID-19, Browne said.
The minister said that based on their experience with the law, the government realised that amendments were needed.
He said the bulk of the changes concern Sections 26 and 27 of the act, which speak to “isolation” and “quarantine”, respectively.
“Mr. Speaker, one of the most popular words, I believe, in St. Vincent and the Grenadines today is ‘quarantine’ … Some people have a different meaning of what the meaning might be,” he said.
The minister said the revisions to the law define “quarantine” to mean “the restriction of activities or separation from others of suspect persons who are not ill or of suspect baggage, containers, goods in such a manner as to prevent the possible spread of infection or contamination”.
He said a definition was not found in the earlier legislation, though it spoke to the concept.
Of “isolation”, the revised Section 26 of the law says:
“Where in the opinion of a health officer any persons certified by a medical practitioner to be suffering from a communicable disease is not accommodated or is not being treated or nursed in such manner as adequately to guard against the spread of such disease, such person may, on the order of the health officer, be removed to a hospital or temporary place, which, in the opinion of the medical officer of health is suitable for the reception of infected persons and there detained until such health officer or any medical practitioner duly authorised for the purpose by the health authority decided that he is no longer infected or can be discharged without danger to public health.”
Browne noted said there is no role specified for the court to intervene or make certain orders as it relates to that section.
“Mr. Speaker, in relation to the quarantine which has been applied in St. Vincent and the Grenadines to date, we have been acting under Section 27 of this law. So the amendment of Section 27 which we are proposing here tonight is something which would have an implication on how we are going about quarantine matter right now.
The minister said that Section 27, which speaks to quarantine, is somewhat different from Section 26:
Section 27 reads:
“Where in the opinion of a health officer any person has recently been exposed to infection and may be in the incubation stage of any notifiable communicable disease and is not accommodated in such manner as adequately to guard against the spread of such disease such person may, on a certificate by the health officer be removed by order of a magistrate and at the cost of the health authority or district where such person is found to a place of isolation and there detained until such health officer he is free from infection or able to be discharged without danger to the public health or until the magistrate cancels the order.”
The health minister said persons arriving in SVG from abroad had been asked to abide in quarantine.
“If they violated the terms of that quarantine as requested, a court order may be issued,” the minister said.
If the person violated the court order, they would be charged with contempt of court.
However, the specifics of that charge were not established under the old law.
Browne said the new law sets out the circumstances in which action might be triggered, for instance, in a situation where a communicable disease exists or may exist or there is an immediate risk of an outbreak.
The minister said that he did not want lawmakers to go away with the impression that anyone who could issue quarantine or isolation orders could do so willy-nilly.
“That’s far from what is being suggested here,” he said, adding that the law says an order made is not effective unless the reasons for the order are set out.
“There is not going to be any arbitrary action on the part of an individual who has the power to issue these orders.”
He, however, said that the order can be oral, but in those circumstances, the content and reason of the order must be put in writing “subsequently”.
In supporting the legislation, Friday said that any move that helps to protect the population has to be supported
“We all have seen the carnage that COVID-19 has wreaked all over the world. Any tools that help to protect the public n St. Vincent and the Grenadines in these circumstances have to be considered so long as they are balanced with protecting public health and individual rights.”
He said that the persons have a right to an attorney to represent them if they feel their rights are improperly violated.
“Mr. Speaker, we are in extraordinary times and given the urgency of the situation, the conditions on the ground with respect to persons violating quarantine and putting everybody, a large segment of our population at risk, I believe that we, on this side of the house, would support the measure that helps to protect or to give greater projection to the general protection in this time of the COVID-19 crisis.”
He said there were a couple of things that he could raise issues with but that would be done another time.
“I don’t see them as so important — more by way of refinements than major substantive differences with the proposal that is here,” Friday said and gave the opposition support.