NSW police opposed plan to let Aboriginal communities lock down in event of Covid outbreak

Police in New South Wales argued against a proposed public health order that would have allowed vulnerable Aboriginal communities to choose to lockdown in the event of a coronavirus outbreak.

The ABC reports that the NSW chief health officer, Dr Kerry Chant, proposed the health order in March 2020 in response to a request from some remote Aboriginal communities to restrict access and travel to those communities to prevent the spread of Covid.

But the proposed order was shelved, reportedly following criticism from the NSW deputy police commissioner and state emergency operations controller, Gary Worboys, regarding issues with enforcement.

Covid did not spread to remote Aboriginal communities in NSW until the Delta outbreak which hit Wilcannia via Dubbo in August this year.

The virus has since spread to other regional and remote communities including the far north town of Moree.

Fifteen Aboriginal people with Covid have died in NSW since August.

The Aboriginal community-controlled health service in Wilcannia, Maari Ma Aboriginal health corporation, was one of those that called for better protections for remote communities at the start of the pandemic, saying in a March 2020 letter to the federal minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, that it had “grave fears” for the town if Covid were to take hold.

“We cannot wait until the first case turns up in the community, or worse, the first hospital case presents,” the letter said.

Remote communities in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland also lobbied for, and were granted, orders to restrict access and protect communities.

In WA, restrictions on travelling to the regions are expected to be extended until after the state opens up its domestic border in 2022 in order to protect vulnerable communities with lower rates of vaccine uptake.

In a statement to the ABC, NSW Health said it agreed not to progress the public health order in early 2020 following consultation with groups which included NSW police and the Centre for Aboriginal Health, citing potential social and economic impacts.

“This included potential impacts on the provision of essential goods and services, the impact of restricting movement to and from specific communities, particularly in relation to cultural activities and the potential impacts of enforcement and penalties,” the health department said.

“The NSW government was also advised by Aboriginal people and through local emergency management committees that restricting Aboriginal communities from moving across traditional lands would be an unreasonable restriction on cultural activities.”

Guardian Australia has sought comment from both NSW Health and NSW police.

Worboys told the ABC in a statement he supported the creation of local community action plans to address the risks of Covid which were individually negotiated with various Aboriginal communities in NSW.

He said that it was for the minister to create public health orders and his role was to provide “information, opinion and comment that informs their decision making”.

“Ultimately it was up to the minister if he was to be satisfied as to whether he would issue a certain [public health order],” Worboys said in the statement.

“Had a [public health order] been issued regarding Aboriginal communities, the emergency management arrangements and NSW police force would have dealt with the consequences of that order.”

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