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Emergency declaration to extend another month despite new COVID laws

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South Australia’s major emergency declaration will likely be extended through June despite Premier Peter Malinauskas trumpeting the passing of new COVID-19 management laws.

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The amendments to the Public Health Act passed parliament on Thursday, after Labor agreed to amendments proposed by the Greens and SA Best.

The bill will allow COVID-19 restrictions to remain in place after the Major Emergency Declaration is revoked.

Malinauskas said its passage through both houses means he will be able to fulfil his  pledge to lift the declaration by the end of June — and potentially earlier.

“[The declaration] currently is set to conclude on May 28, but we’ll look to extensions to take us through to the end of June,” he told reporters at a press conference on Thursday. “June 30 is the target, but if it can happen earlier then great.”

The amendments to the Public Health Act will enable restrictions such as quarantine, mask and vaccination mandates to remain in place without the declaration in place.

“What the legislation does is freezes the restrictions we have in place at the moment, which are a lot lower than under the Liberals — they can’t be increased, they can only be decreased,” Malinauskas said. “At the same time it introduces far more parliamentary oversight over the restrictions.”

The reintroduction of restrictions such as lockdowns, hospitality restrictions and broad mask mandates would require the declaration of another emergency.

The crossbench secured amendments include a parliamentary oversight committee to scrutinise how the Public Health Act laws are applied, along with an appeals mechanism for fines.

The new bill will allow maximum penalties of up to $75,000 for businesses and $20,000 and two years jail for individuals to be enforced for COVID-19 breaches.

Malinauskas said the legislation would provide more security to businesses that have been living under the threat of ever-changing restrictions.

“It provides more security and certainty to businesses in SA knowing they won’t be subject to new restrictions without another emergency declaration,” Malinauskas said. “If you’re operating hospitality with a Sword of Damocles hanging over your head, it’s hard to grow, hard to invest.”

The SA Law Society has expressed concern over vague definitions of close contacts, and broad powers handed to the Governor.

Despite his party voting for the bill, Opposition Leader David Speirs had accused the state government of overseeing a “dark age dictatorship”. The Liberals want to scrap jail terms and cut fines by a third.

However, Speirs appeared to tone down his rhetoric as the Bill passed, telling parliament: “We made it clear from day one that we supported the sentiment of this Bill.”

“We supported that move from a Major Emergency Declaration into public health legislation for the next phase of the management of the COVID-19 pandemic, but we felt that it had to be backed up by a step-down in some of the penalties,” he said.

“We would have liked to have seen the penalties reduced in terms of their quantum and their effect, but this is what the parliamentary process is all about… we think where we have landed is much better.”

The Premier’s press conference was held out at Peel St bar Clever Little Taylor whose co-owner Dana Whyte welcomed the new laws on the basis they would offer predictability to small businesses.

“It gives us the confidence to reinvest in renovations, extensions — we haven’t had the confidence (due to the threat of restrictions),” he said.

Asked about the threat of a $75,000 fine for business breaches of restrictions, Whyte said however that he wasn’t “super familiar with the penalties”.

South Australia reported a further 4,395 new cases of COVID-19 and five deaths on Thursday.

Hospital admissions remained steady at 246 patients, with 25,629 known active cases across the state.

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