Preserve and protect

11 Sep 2020

How far should governments go in restricting people's freedoms in the name of public health?

It’s been more than eight months since the first COVID-19 case was recorded in Australia, and more than six months since the Australian Government introduced nationwide restrictions in response to the global pandemic.

While some restrictions have lifted in some parts of the country, the day-to-day lives of many Australians have changed dramatically, particularly for those living in metropolitan Melbourne.

And now, with the Queensland Government announcing new measures to contain a potential outbreak and the Victorian Government seeking to extend its state of emergency, it’s clear that restrictions will remain in place for many Australians for some time to come.

While unprecedented measures like nightly curfews, travel restrictions and the closure of certain types of businesses have been put in place to protect the public, the impact on people’s lives and livelihoods is staggering, with some questioning whether the restrictions on people's civil liberties have gone too far.

So, we put the question to UQ experts across a range of disciplines: how far should the Australian and state governments go in restricting people’s freedoms in the name of public health?

Professor Stephen BirchProfessor Stephen Birch

Centre for the Business and Economics of Health
Faculty of Business, Economics and Law

Policies restricting individual freedom are acceptable only where significant reductions in risk of infection in the population are expected to follow and hence the health of all Australians protected.

Recent events leading to avoidable community transmission (Melbourne’s hotel quarantine fiasco, individuals from hotspots avoiding quarantine in Queensland) provide evidence of government failure. This undermines restricting everyone’s freedom because the public’s sacrifice does not provide the increased protection promised by our political leaders. No amount of social distancing in Melbourne is effective if the government fails to regulate security arrangements under hotel quarantine contracts.

Entry-to-Queensland restrictions on people from hotspots were not effective and border closures were reimposed because the ‘reward’ for honesty was a $2800 bill for a 14-day hotel quarantine. The police had no means of verifying entrants’ claims. Lying avoided a large cost to the individual but imposed increased risks of harm on others.

Dr Rebecca Ananian-WelshDr Rebecca Ananian-Welsh

Law School
Faculty of Business, Economics and Law

Governments are vested with incredible powers that infiltrate most aspects of our daily lives. Getting it right when it comes to protecting safety, security and liberty is no easy task, but our constitutional frameworks and values have evolved with this in mind.

Whilst governments have (and need and must exercise) invasive powers, legal measures used to fight COVID-19 should be carefully scrutinised against some basic principles.

Each measure should be:

  • Necessary – Is it justified? Tailored to a legitimate aim? Effective?
  • Proportionate – Has a balance been struck between infringements on liberty and potential benefits to public health? Is the government using a sledgehammer to crack a nut?
  • Reviewed – We are witnessing how difficult it can be to assess necessity and proportionality. Measures should be regularly reviewed against these standards by decision-makers who are both independent and suitably qualified. Effective review also calls for a willingness to reform ineffective or disproportionate measures. The evolving threat of COVID-19 places particular emphasis on continual review and reform.
  • Time-limited – Extreme threats may call for extreme responses. But when the threat has passed, the measures must be allowed to lapse. Otherwise, extreme measures may normalise, spread to other areas of law and policy, and justify new extremes. For example, since September 11, Australia has introduced more counter-terror laws than any other nation. Despite some measures being of unproven effectiveness, they remain on the statute books. Many measures (like control orders, secret evidence and the declaration of ‘criminal organisations’) have found their way into the ordinary criminal laws of States and Territories.
  • Constitutional – COVID-19 demands severe action that will restrict freedom. But it must not be allowed to erode the core values that underpin our system: openness, accountability, a separation (not concentration) of powers, fairness, non-discrimination, the rule of law, and a basic commitment to equality and liberty.

Hear from more UQ experts and read the full article in Contact Magazine