On Sunday afternoon, Prime Minister Scott Morrison introduced new measures to slow the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). Alongside banning international cruise ships and gatherings of more than 500 people, Mr. Morrison imposed compulsory self-isolation on all international arrivals to Australia. This is on top of the ongoing restrictions for travellers from China, South Korea, Iran and Italy.
So, what does this mean for people returning home to Australia and what happens if you don’t follow the rules?
What does compulsory self-isolation require?
Everyone entering Australia, from foreign backpackers to Australian citizens, will be required to self-isolate for 14 days. Self-isolation is just as it sounds; once you leave the airport you go home and stay there. You limit any activities outside your house unless you require medical care.
The NSW Government has advised against receiving visitors without an important reason (boredom doesn’t count) and recommend asking friends or family members to buy your groceries or ordering them online. They should be left at your door, or you should wear a mask to receive them.
And as always, wash your hands regularly and thoroughly.
Leaving the airport
If you are healthy, or tested negative for COVID-19 after arriving in Australia, you can return home by public transport, taxi, or Uber, so long as you are wearing a mask.
Living with other people
If you live with other people, the NSW Government recommends that you try and remain separated as much as possible. This involves:
- Avoiding shared or communal areas (staying in your room).
- Wearing a surgical mask when in the same room or communal area as another person.
- Using a separate bathroom where possible.
Gardens and balconies
Feeling a little claustrophobic? It’s okay to sit outside in your garden, balcony or courtyard, but it’s still recommended that you wear a face mask if anyone else is around.
What happens if you break the rules?
Before Sunday night, self-isolation was effectively voluntary, and there were no penalties if you didn’t follow the rules. But as of Monday, March 16, if a person breaks self-isolation they will be committing an offence and can face penalties.
It is up to individual states and territories to decide how to enforce these rules. In NSW people face penalties of up to six months imprisonment, a fine of up to $11,000, or both. Every day they continue to break these laws, they face an additional $5,500 fine.
NSW has not enacted any new laws to help enforce these measures. Under the Public Health Act 2010, the NSW Health Minister already has the power to act and make orders necessary to deal with public health risks. In the last two days the Health Minister has issued two orders, the first forbidding public events with over 500 people, and the second ordering people to isolate and quarantine for 14 days after arrival in Australia.
If you want to read these orders for yourself, you can find them in the NSW Government Gazette.
How will these rules be enforced?
While anyone proceeding to stage a festival might be quickly stopped and prosecuted, you’re unlikely to be imprisoned for forgetting to wear a face mask in the family loungeroom.
However, the Order of the Health Minister is very specific. People who have arrived in NSW must:
- Go directly home and stay there for 14 days.
- Not leave the premises unless they need medical care/supplies, it’s an emergency, or they can avoid close contact with others.
- Not let any other person enter their home unless they also live there, are also under quarantine, or there is a medical emergency.
- Comply with the NSW Health Self Isolation Guidelines.
Breaching any of these directions is an offence.
For now, it’s unclear how strictly these offences and the penalties will be policed and enforced. As Prime Minister Morrison said in his press conference, “if your mate has been to Bali and they come back and they turn up at work, and they’re sitting next to you, well, they’ll be committing an offence”. It’s likely only these types of serious, public breaches will ever end up in court.
The government has urged people to do the right thing by the community and are doubtlessly hoping the threat of legal action, rather than stringent enforcement, will persuade the public to take these new rules seriously.