PREPARING FOR POST-COVID: New legislation tabled as Parliament debates extension of “last” emergency order

PREPARING FOR POST-COVID: New legislation tabled as Parliament debates extension of “last” emergency order

NASSAU, BAHAMAS — Along with a resolution to extend the current emergency orders “for the last time”, the government on Tuesday also tabled a new bill that would put in place a statutory framework to mitigate public health emergencies.

Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis laid the documents in Parliament during a briefing sitting, and members returned yesterday to debate and pass the resolution.

The Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Management Bill, 2021, empowers the minister of health to declare a public emergency through a gazetted notice after advice from the chief medical officer and the prime minister.

A public health emergency declaration would last for three months, with the possibility of extensions, but must be tabled in Parliament within 21 days.  Parliamentarians would be able to revoke the declaration by resolution at any time.

Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis tables a resolution to extend the emergency orders and the Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Management Bill, 2021, in the House of Assembly on Tuesday, August 10, 2021. (BIS)

The bill would allow for the minister to impose regulations and protocols such as lockdowns, business closures, social distancing requirements and mask regulations, after advice from an advisory committee appointed by the prime minister.

The bill also provides for a national plan to be prepared and published within six months of the date of commencement of this framework.

The national plan would include preventative plans, preparedness plans and mitigation, response and implementation plans.

Attorney General Carl Bethel said the bill is intended to create a framework under the Constitution, as opposed to the current declaration of a state of emergency made by the governor general.

“So long as any order is an order that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society,” he said.

“As of late, that phrase has been summed up to the word ‘proportionate.’”

The bill is currently open for public consultation.

Bethel added: “Over the next several weeks and we hope before November 13, Parliament would have made its mind, one way or the other, what tweaks need to be made to the bill.”

He said the “subconstitutional legal framework” would allow officials to better manage the current COVID-19 pandemic as vaccination across the country increases.

Attorney General Carl Bethel.

“In the early days and even as of late, the only way we could really effectively manage the pandemic is through the use of emergency powers,” he said.

“The level of vaccinations in the country is not high enough at this point to warrant a move away from them.

“But we anticipate that [over] next three months, we will move to where there is sufficiently high levels of vaccinations across this nation to allow for a move towards a subconstitutional management of the pandemic.”

Bethel also shot down criticisms over the length of time it took the government to bring forth the legislation, insisting that the framework would not have worked without the necessary ability to vaccinate enough Bahamians.

A public state of emergency has been in effect since last March, along with teetering lockdowns and daily curfews.

There have been four separate proclamations since the first one last year, with the extension of the latest one set to end on November 13.

About Sloan Smith

Sloan Smith is a senior digital reporter at Eyewitness News, covering a diverse range of beats, from politics and crime to environment and human interest. In 2018, Sloan received a nomination for the “Leslie Higgs Feature Writer of The Year Award” from The Bahamas Press Club for her work with Eyewitness News.