Police powers don’t serve public health

by Daphna Whitmore

The COVID19 Bill has been rammed through parliament today giving the government and police extraordinary powers. Attorney-General David Parker wants us to think of it as a “bespoke piece of legislation”. How quaint and charming. There was not even Select Committee oversight of the legislation and it was passed under urgency.

Police can now search homes without warrants if they think rules are being broken. Some deeply contentious parts of the Bill were dropped such as naming marae as places that could be searched without warrant. Funerals were going to be limited to 10 people at a time, while restaurants and cinemas were limited to 100 in the Bill.

There was widespread anger about limit on funerals and the government backed down and changed it to a limit of 50 people. While the threat of infection is greater at a funeral setting the government is showing its strategy has many obstacles ahead. Dr Ayesha Verrall, the virologist advising the government on contract tracing,  pointed out that severely restricting funerals creates more risk and alienates people from the response. That is what they learned from all other outbreaks, especially Ebola, she said.

The government intended the expanded powers to last for two years but reduced it to three months after facing a ton of public opposition. They want lasting draconian powers because their strategy of elimination leaves New Zealand in a precarious position. Infection will be a constant threat in a population with no immunity. The strategy relies on the hope of a safe and effective vaccine as the country remains on heightened alert. It is quite probable that the government will seek to have the COVID19 powers continued by a motion in the House every 90 days because of the ongoing likelihood of an outbreak. At any time a flight attendant could introduce the infection, or someone arriving from overseas and in quarantine will pass it to the hotel staff and away it goes.

The rushed legislation was being applauded by some on the left. But wiser veterans of struggle have no difficulty seeing why this heavy-handed approach is wrong.  As one longtime activist noted: “The police and government departments simply cannot be trusted and abusing power is second nature to them. I cannot think of a single occasion when they have been given extra powers when they have not found an excuse to use them unnecessarily – usually in a racist manner.”