Politics / Covid 19

Level 2 enforcement law to be reviewed by select committee

17:19 pm on 15 May 2020

The government has bowed to pressure and will now allow public scrutiny of the law giving police the power to enforce alert level 2, passed under urgency this week.

Photo: RNZ / Patrice Allen

The Covid-19 Public Health Response Act - which passed on Wednesday, just hours ahead of the move to alert level 2 - grants extraordinary powers to the government and to police.

The National Party voted against it, concerned about the speed at which it was being pushed through, and the breadth of those powers.

These included the power for police to search premises - including marae - without a warrant if they had reason to believed rules around the Covid-19 epidemic were not being followed.

The government argued at the time the legislation was necessary to ensure the rules could be enforced without relying on a National State of Emergency, and needed to be in place by the time New Zealand moved into level 2 on Thursday.

It will sit on the statute books for two years, but Parliament will have to actively renew the Act every 90 days.

A range of academics called for public consultation given the nature of the new law, backed by the Human Rights Commission which said there was a risk of "overreach" when sweeping powers were granted in times of national emergency.

"Mistakes are made and later regretted. This is precisely when our national and international human rights, and Te Tiriti, commitments must be taken into account."

Attorney-General David Parker said the Act would now go to select committee, so the findings could be reported in time for the first 90-day review.

"That will allow the House to take into account the advice of the committee before it makes the decision whether to continue with the law for another 90 days - or longer if the House decides", he said.

He reiterated the Act "ensures controls on gatherings of people and physical distancing are still enforceable".

It narrowed police powers compared with those under level 3 and level 4, said Parker.

Another controversial element of the legislation was the 10-person limit for funerals and tangi, which after public and political pressure was increased to 50.

However that limit still applies to other gatherings such as church services, prompting an open letter today from National's leader Simon Bridges to the Prime Minister.

"It was right to increase the number of people who can attend funerals and tangi - it is right to do the same for our faith communities," he wrote.

"Religious institutions are in a better place than almost any other organisation that is allowed to host larger crowds, and are therefore able to ensure appropriate physical distancing and health precautions are taking place.

"I strongly urge you to reconsider this limit so New Zealanders of faith can gather and worship this weekend and participate in what is one of the most defining aspects of their lives: expressing their faith through worship."