Government wants more ‘lockdown powers’ for the health department

Health minister Zweli Mkhize has published new proposals to change the National Health Act’s regulations on notifiable diseases, extending government’s powers to deal with the coronavirus and other health issues.

The proposals, which were mooted late on Tuesday (13 October), will allow the minister to impose ‘necessary restrictions’ to ensure that measures are in place to manage and control the spread of medical conditions.

The regulations are not specific to the Covid-19 pandemic and can be used to help prevent further health crises.

The restrictions the health minister would be able to impose 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.

Opposition party, the 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’.

“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”.

Parliament is not legally required to vote and pass on regulations, however, these specific regulations have far-reaching consequences and must be brought to the full sitting of Parliament accompanied by a legal opinion sourced from Parliament’s legal services, said Garube.

“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.”

South Africa’s extended state of disaster is set to end on 15 October 2020, but with all current lockdown restrictions tethered to the Disaster Management Act to give them effect, it is expected that it will again be extended by a month.

Read: South Africa pushes ahead with NHI – expects next milestone in February 2021

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Government wants more ‘lockdown powers’ for the health department