Clearer language recommended for pandemic orders

22 July 2022 Read the reports

One of the reports reviewed the Visitors to Hospitals and Care Facilities Orders.
One of the reports reviewed the Visitors to Hospitals and Care Facilities Orders.

The Victorian Government should improve the way it communicates pandemic orders to the public, the Pandemic Declaration Accountability and Oversight Committee has found.

The Committee set up to review restrictions under the pandemic orders has tabled two reports as part of its ongoing review of orders made by the Minister for Health.

The Pandemic Declaration Accountability and Oversight Committee’s reports review the Visitors to Hospitals and Care Facilities Orders and the Quarantine, Isolation and Testing Orders. Since the pandemic declaration came into effect 15 December 2021, there have been many changes to restrictions under the pandemic orders, which have gradually eased since then.

The joint investigatory committee found that the orders were compliant with the requirements of the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008. In addition, the Committee raised concerns with information relating to limitations of rights under the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 and sought clarification from the Minister.

The Committee found the legalistic and complex language of pandemic orders has made them difficult for members of the public to interpret and understand, risking the pandemic orders being misunderstood and increasing the likelihood of non-compliance.

'Many of the pandemic orders place a significant burden on the Victorian community, in this case restricting the ability of loved ones to visit those in a hospital or care facility,' said Committee Chair Suzanna Sheed MP. 

'It’s important we ensure the Minister’s approach to issuing pandemic orders strikes the right balance between protecting public health and reducing the burdens placed on Victorians,' she said. 

The review of the Pandemic (Visitors to Hospitals and Care Facilities) Orders found that restrictions on visitors to hospitals due to government mandates were in place from March 2020 to April 2022, aside from a brief easing at the end of 2020. In this time, the majority of patients were not permitted any visitors at all, as the categories for exemptions were narrow.

The Committee found that some key stakeholders such as hospitals and care facilities were not informed of major changes to pandemic orders ahead of public announcements in the media. They also did not receive official communication from the Victorian Government until close to when the orders were to come into effect.

It also found that in some instances, public statements and announcements made at Victorian Government and agency press conferences differed from the detailed changes made to pandemic orders. This led to confusion for key stakeholders and the general public when official advice received from the Victorian Government differed from that announced in the media.

The Committee found the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic itself, as well as the public health response, have contributed to Victoria’s mental health crisis. Pandemic orders which require levels of seclusion, such as isolation, quarantine and visitor restrictions, have significantly contributed to a decline in mental health across the Victorian population.

'The Committee heard devastating stories about the challenges people have faced during the pandemic, particularly young people and aged care residents.'

Committee Chair Suzanna Sheed

'It is important that the mental health impacts of the pandemic are understood so that they can better inform implementing pandemic orders, or future pandemic preparedness,' said Ms Sheed.

The Review of Pandemic (Quarantine, Isolation and Testing) Orders recommended the Minister for Health publish as an addendum to the Human Rights Statement an explanation on why the Orders do not limit the right to privacy under the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act. 

It also recommends the Victorian Government continues supplying two free rapid antigen tests per week to Victorians enrolled in primary and secondary schools as long as testing requirements are still in place. 

The Pandemic Declaration Accountability and Oversight Committee was set up late last year under new provisions of the Public Health and Wellbeing Act. It will continue to review the pandemic orders as long as the pandemic declaration remains in place.