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Monday, 15 September 2003
Page: 20070


Ms WORTH (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Health and Ageing) (6:33 PM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The purpose of this bill is to amend the human quarantine provisions of the Quarantine Act 1908.

The Quarantine Act 1908 (the act) and its subordinate legislation provide the legislative basis for human, plant and animal quarantine activities in Australia. The human provisions of theQuarantine Act 1908 deal specifically with a small group of `quarantinable diseases'—plague, cholera, yellow fever, smallpox, rabies, viral haemorrhagic fevers and, more recently, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry's Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) administers the legislation for plant and animal quarantine entirely and, for human quarantine, on behalf of the Department of Health and Ageing.

Australia's quarantine policy is based on the concept of the management of risk to an acceptably low level. In these times of enormous international movement of goods and persons through migration, business travel and tourism, the risk to the Australian population posed by the importation of communicable diseases, including quarantinable diseases, has increased greatly.

The recent outbreak of SARS and the potential for other new and emerging disease threats highlight the importance of border protection measures as an essential first line of defence against the transmission of disease.

In 1997, the human quarantine provisions of the act were reviewed in accordance with national competition policy requirements.

Following the recommendations of the final report of the National Competition Policy Review, the Department of Health and Aged Care undertook a review of the human quarantine provisions of the act in the year 2000, to investigate the adequacy of existing provisions for protecting and promoting public health, and with a view to updating and improving the legislative framework for human quarantine activities in Australia.

In December 2000, the then Minister for Health and Aged Care, Dr Michael Wooldridge, approved the final reportof the Human Quarantine Legislation Review. The report recommended a two-stage response to the review's findings.

This bill has been developed in response to the stage 1 recommendation of the final report. The bill introduces a number of amendments and new provisions to ensure the act is comprehensive yet flexible in its approach to border control measures.

These are minor and technical amendments to better align some of the existing provisions with current policy and practice regarding human quarantine control measures.

The amendments:

incorporate a new right for people who have been ordered into quarantine to request an independent medical assessment;

support the current policy of granting pratique by exception for international aircraft except where specified circumstances exist;

allow for vector control activities to be undertaken, or ordered, within the entire bound-ary of a port as well as in a 400 metre surrounding buffer zone, with a penalty for non-compliance consistent with other penalty provisions in the Quarantine Act;

ensure that quarantine signals apply to sea vessels only and not to aircraft;

provide that costs relating to human quarantine may be recovered from the master, owner or agent of a quarantined vessel consistent with other similar provisions in the Quarantine Act;

ensure that individuals are not liable for the costs of food or medicine relating to human quarantine; and

remove the outdated references to `division or divisions' of quarantine.

The act currently makes no provision for a person who has been ordered into quarantine to obtain an independent medical assessment of their condition. Pursuant to the amendments in this bill, a person ordered into quarantine who is, or is likely to be, suffering from a disease, may seek an independent medical assessment of their condition from a medical practitioner of their choice. They must be informed of this right, and may seek to exercise it at any time after being ordered into quarantine. Such a request may be invoked again after a lapse of 72 hours but not before. This new procedure aims to balance the interests of the individual against the public health risks to the wider community.

A new section is inserted into the act, to enable pratique to be granted automatically in relation to the arrival of overseas aircraft, unless specified circumstances exist. Pratique is a term used to refer to the health clearance of a vessel—whether a ship or an overseas aircraft, or an installation, by a quarantine officer.

In relation to incoming overseas aircraft this risk management approach is addressed by enabling pratique to be automatically granted in appropriate circumstances. Circumstances in which pratique will not be automatically granted include:

if the commander of an aircraft has notified a quarantine officer of the presence of a prescribed symptom or an outbreak on board; or

a quarantine officer is not satisfied that an aircraft is free from infection.

The Director of Human Quarantine, who is also the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer, can also give a direction, before an aircraft arrives, that pratique will not be granted automatically on arrival, so that appropriate precautions can be taken commensurate with the perceived level of risk. The recent SARS outbreak provides an example of circumstances where the Director of Human Quarantine may decide to give such a direction, for example, in relation to aircraft arrivals from specified countries which pose a higher level of disease threat.

A new part on vector monitoring and control activities is inserted into the act to provide for the carrying out of vector control measures. The objective is to prevent the introduction, spread and establishment of exotic diseases and their vectors so that any threat to public health resulting from a vector incursion is minimised or removed entirely. This provides for vector monitoring and control activities to be undertaken within a port, and within a permissible distance—currently 400 metres—from the boundary of a port, or from a place at which a vessel has landed, or is moored or berthed.

Provisions are also inserted to provide greater flexibility in relation to vector control activities carried out on private property to ensure that a vector has not spread onto, or is not likely to become established on, the property. This part also provides for a new offence of failing to comply with a direction given by a quarantine officer to carry out vector control measures on the property.

A quarantine officer will be able to enter property, including private property, to conduct vector monitoring and control activities with consent, or in an emergency, or under the terms of a warrant.

In order to remove inconsistency and ambiguity, this bill inserts several new definitions into the act. The definition of `vector' is inserted to ensure that a consistent description applies throughout the act. The definition of `proclaimed place' is repealed and replaced with a definition of `declared place'. This modernises the administration of the act by allowing the minister to declare any place in or beyond Australia infected, or in danger of being infected, by a quarantinable disease or pest.

Other amendments in this bill include:

the removal of all references to `a division' or `divisions' of quarantine;

provision that persons released under quarantine surveillance cannot be apprehended; and

clarification that a person can be made subject to quarantine on the basis of a quarantine officer's `reasonable suspicion' that a person has been infected or exposed to a quarantinable disease or pest.

This addresses an anomaly, in that a person can be `ordered' into quarantine on various grounds, including:

a quarantine officer's opinion that the person is, or `is likely to be', infected with a quarantinable disease, or

that a person or persons are suffering or `suspected' to be suffering from a communicable disease.

However, there is no equivalent provision under section 18 in relation to persons being subject to quarantine. This corrects that anomaly, and moreover, requires that the suspicion be reasonable.

These amendments address a number of technical issues to improve the operation of this longstanding piece of legislation. The Quarantine Act has served Australia well to protect human health over the last century, and with these amendments will continue to do so.

The recent international outbreak of the SARS virus has also highlighted the need for a continued strategic approach to health protection to address issues surrounding contemporary disease preparedness, governance and response. In implementing the stage 2 recommendations of thehuman quarantine legislation review, the department will consider these issues, including options for administrative review and cost recovery where appropriate.

I commend this bill to the parliament and present the signed explanatory memorandum.