coronavirus quarantine virus outbreak fines
(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

If you’re returning from abroad or have been in contact with an infected person, it’s time to lock your doors. Depending on where you live, you could be slapped with a fine in the tens of thousands for disobeying quarantine orders. 

These laws are, unlike the coronavirus, not novel or new. But despite their age, they’ve never been enforced before. Crikey takes a look at how much in fines dissenters can face, and why. 

A question of state

There are two mechanisms that Australian governments can use to force people into quarantine: the Biosecurity Act 2015 (which can order people to provide body samples, to undergo treatment and to restrict their behaviour) and state-based public health acts. 

Enforcing isolation and penalising people who disobey is generally up to the state, says Cameron Stewart, a professor of health, law and ethics at Sydney University.

Western Australia was the first state to implement its Health Act 1911 and it also has the strictest fines for ignoring the rules. Ignoring a public health order could lead to imprisonment of 12 months or a fine of $50,000.

“All of our existing examples of enforcing the act are state-based and well-known,” Stewart told Crikey

Across the country, fines and penalties vary widely: 

  • Victoria: $20,000 for individuals, $100,000 for businesses
  • Tasmania: $8400
  • Queensland: $13,345 plus penalties
  • South Australia: $25,000
  • NSW: $11,000 and six months jail
  • WA: $50,000 or 12 months jail.

A spokesperson for Queensland Health advised that people in the state had so far been cooperating.

“If a person is suspected to have breached the notice they had voluntarily agreed to, we’ll initially work closely with the person to ensure they not only understand their obligations, but also the importance and seriousness of isolating under the current global circumstances,” they said.

Further south, Victoria’s Police Minister Lisa Neville announced yesterday that police had been formally requested to give assistance in enforcing the Public Health Act.

“We don’t really want Victoria Police to have to be in a position where they’re knocking on people’s doors, or detaining people or arresting people,” she said. “[But] if we do need to use the powers, the powers exist.” 

NSW Minister for Health Brad Hazzard yesterday stressed that individuals faced an $11,000 fine and jail time, with corporations charged $55,000 for hosting events with more than 500 people

“Obviously the NSW government, indeed all governments around the country, are not wanting to impose penalties on people, what we’re looking for is cooperation,” he said. 

The reason Tasmania’s fine of $8400 is a fraction of WA’s is “arbitrary”, Stewart says. “With fines it’s always a question of guesstimation. The rough principle is the more serious the infraction, the bigger the penalty, but there’s no legal science on why you penalise something with different penalty units”. 

Not new, but untested

Importantly, these fines are nothing new. In WA they’ve been in place for more than a century. But, as far as Stewart is aware, “no one has ever been fined under these laws”.

However, he does note that “public health orders are commonly used, with people told to go for testing or to undergo treatment”. Public health orders can result in someone being imprisoned or placed under house arrest, or having guards stationed outside their homes. 

A penalty for someone disobeying health laws can become a serious criminal matter, Stewart says. In 2013 acrobat Godfrey Zaburoni was sentenced to nine-and-a-half years in prison after he lied to his former partner about having HIV, which led to her contracting the virus. He pleaded guilty to grievous bodily harm, but was convicted of the more serious offence of intentionally transmitting the disease to her. (This conviction was later quashed by the High Court, and reduced to grievous bodily harm as there was insufficient proof to ascertain intent.)

But Stewart says we’re unlikely to see large-scale fines over the coronavirus outbreak. “We’ve had an influenza pandemic every 20 years and we’ve never seen laws enacted this way,” Stewart said. 

Are harsher penalties the answer?

So can we expect those who ignore quarantine orders be charged with grievous bodily harm? Stewart says it’s not likely.

“I don’t think the Biosecurity Act or federal legislation will be used. Draconian laws are rare and counter-intuitive, and might have a worse effect on a population’s behaviour,” he said.

“We’ve learnt from the AIDS epidemic that it’s better to educate and encourage than discriminate against and stigmatise. It’s better to get people to the right thing.”

In Stewart’s opinion, these laws are mostly demonstrative. “They serve a purpose to demonstrate that the behaviour is bad… Policing them is another thing.”