Widespread and extensive testing for COVID-19 has been a pillar of Australia’s response to coronavirus, but not everyone, it seems, is on board.
Over the past week, it’s been revealed that 30 per cent of people in hotel quarantine in Victoria have declined tests, and nearly 1,000 people approached in a testing blitz across Melbourne’s hotspots have also refused to be tested.
But with a spike in locally acquired cases across parts of Melbourne worrying authorities, could we see a situation where people are forced to take tests?
Why are people refusing coronavirus tests?
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has pleaded with anyone who is provided with the opportunity to be tested to take it.
“If someone comes to your door and asks you to get tested, please say yes,” he said yesterday.
But acting Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said he understood why some people would be uncomfortable with taking a test.
“I was thinking about it myself last night, if someone turned up and knocked on my door and I hadn’t heard that they were coming, offering a test, how would I respond?” he said.
“It needs very careful explanation, we’ve done a lot of work with multicultural communities, and it’s a very multicultural part of Melbourne.”
What could the Government do if people refuse tests?
There are state, territory and federal laws that give authorities the power to force someone to take a test.
In Victoria, where the current outbreak has taken hold, the Public Health and Wellbeing Act gives the state’s Chief Health Officer the power to make someone take a test.
The Chief Health Officer must believe the person either has contracted or been exposed to an infectious disease.
They can then make an order requiring that person take a test.
If the person doesn’t comply, they’ll face a fine of 60 penalty units — or just under $10,000.
“If the person fails to undergo a specified examination or test, the person is to be detained, or detained in isolation, at a specified place for the specified period not exceeding 72 hours for the purpose of undergoing the specified examination or test,” the law says.
Similar laws exist in other parts of the country, and the federal Biosecurity Act also allows for authorities to issue control orders, which can force people to undergo examinations and provide samples for testing.
Could mandatory testing actually happen?
Professor Kelly said health authorities were reluctant to make testing mandatory.
“Testing can be mandatory — all of the state and territory chief health officers have powers under their public health acts that can make testing and other mechanisms mandatory — but it’s a last resort,” Professor Kelly said.
“Explaining to people, getting cooperation is the first way.
Lawyer Bill O’Shea, who was formerly general counsel at Alfred Health, said there was precedent for community-health needs to override personal liberties.
“It’s quite possible to deprive people of their liberty if they have a mental illness and we’ve accepted that for many years, it’s not a civil liberties issue, it’s ringed around with a whole lot of protections. And I think with COVID it’s not that dissimilar really.
“The sacrifice is to impose a test on people, maybe even against their will.”
Mr O’Shea said he believed the introduction of less intrusive saliva tests would reduce the number of people declining tests.
“I think the Government is reluctant to have to do this, because you’ve got to get hearts and minds on side if you’ve got a pandemic,” he said.
“The Government has got to take the community with them.
“We don’t want to do it if it’s not necessary.”