National would be 'crucified' if it passed this week's new laws - Judith Collins

coronavirus 15/05/2020

National MP Judith Collins says if her party had introduced laws that allowed police to bust into people's homes without a warrant, they'd be crucified.

But Labour's Willie Jackson says National did indeed introduce such laws and her protests are "the joke of the century".

As the state of emergency introduced at the start of the lockdown in March came to an end this week, the Government needed new legislation to make enforcement powers legal under level 2. Under the more restrictive levels 3 and 4 it had been operating under a directive from Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield under the 65-year-old Health Act, the legality of which had been questioned. 

"I didn't really know I had [those powers], and we had to exercise them," Dr Bloomfield told The AM Show on Thursday. 

The COVID-19 Public Health Response Bill, passed under urgency this week, shifts those powers to Cabinet and the Minister of Health. The Bill formalises much of what had been in place under the lockdown, but also gave police the legal power to enter homes if they suspect more than 10 people are there - in breach of the level 2 restrictions on gatherings. 

The more people who interact closely with one another, and the larger those gatherings are, the harder it will be for health officials to trace everyone in the event of an outbreak of the highly infectious COVID-19, which has killed more than 300,000 people worldwide to date.

The Bill only grants the new powers for 90 days at a time, and will expire if Parliament doesn't vote to renew them. But the speed of the Bill's passing was criticised by human rights groups, including Amnesty International and the Human Rights Commission.

Collins, a former Minister of Police, called it an "absolute outrage". 

"If this was a National Government trying to pass it I can tell you we'd be crucified. The thing is you can't even have a decent protest now because you're not allowed to have more than 10 people anywhere near each other. This is outrageous... No police should be wandering into people's homes because they think there's 10 people there, for no other reason. It's an absolute outrage."  

It's not clear from the Government's official COVID-19 site if protests of more than 10 would be banned. While "gatherings" have to be limited to 10, "event facilities" are allowed up to 100 as long as social distancing rules are followed. 

Jackson pointed out police already had powers to enter people's homes without a warrant for various reasons, including if they suspect a crime is taking place or people are using drugs.

"National brought out the search and surveillance stuff in 2012. This was just about giving police the right delegations at this time." 

According to Community Law, that includes if "there's an emergency threatening somebody's life or safety", or "if they've got reasonable grounds to suspect you've committed an offence that's punishable by a prison term". The COVID-19 Public Health Response Bill says intentionally failing to comply with an order can be punished with up to six months in prison. 

Jackson said Collins' claims of overreach were "nonsense". 

"The police, you'd have to admit, through levels 3 and 4 behaved very well - as did the public. No need for panic stations - the police already had a lot of those rights. They now need specific delegations at level 2, and that's what this is all about - because we're dealing with a health crisis."

Collins asked why, if the police already had powers of entry, was a new law needed? 

"This is actually a total insult to New Zealanders who have done really, really well. New Zealanders as we all know, the psyche is if you ask us to do something and you tell us why, we will try our very best. That's what's happened under levels 3 and 4. 

"And all of a sudden we're going to be treated like children who don't want to do the right thing."

Thousands of New Zealanders were caught breaching the lockdown rules - nearly 6000 under level 4, according to the police, with more than 600 of them prosecuted. 

Under level 3, police were forced to drive around busting up parties - more than 1000 of them last weekend, before the shift to level 2. 

Restrictions on gatherings are expected to be lifted entirely at level 1. 

The Government's restrictions under level 3 and 4 will be subject to a judicial review. 

University of Otago law professor Andrew Geddis said last week police knew they were on shaky legal ground initially, but acted appropriately, and said there was little to be concerned about in terms of how the lockdown was legally enforced.

"I wouldn't say this was an example of some tyranny running wild or anything; I would say this is actually an example of the system working - the institutions being concerned to have a legal basis for action, and where there are questions about whether that legal basis were proper, those are being examined through the courts as they should be. 

"It sounds like a big thing - 'oh my god, the police didn't have a proper legal basis to arrest people' - well it sounds like they didn't arrest people where they didn't have a legal basis. And if there are questions about that, it's being dealt with through the courts, as it should."