By ALEC SMART
When it comes to policing Covid-19 restrictions, Sydney appears to be divided by its economic regions. The inner suburbs, dominated by lower-income earners, are facing enthusiastic police patrols issuing spot-fines to perceived transgressors of the emergency lockdown laws, while the more affluent neighbourhoods like Balmain and the North Shore suburbs are apparently overlooked.
Throughout March, the NSW Govt issued guidelines to encourage social distancing and dissuade anyone from going outside unless their journey was essential. These restrictions gradually increased in severity until Tuesday 31 March, when a Law – the Public Health (COVID-19 Restrictions on Gathering and Movement) Order 2020 – came into effect to inhibit almost all public activities.
NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller also warned that his officers would no longer give cautions for those flouting self-isolation rules and instead issue $1000 on-the-spot fines known as Penalty Infringement Notices (aka PINs) – for violations of the emergency Covid-19 laws.
The NSW Govt listed 16 legitimate excuses for leaving your home, but none of them included picnics, barbecues, dinner parties or catching up with friends.
Thereafter, people who left their home without a valid reason – excluding work or study, buying food or other essentials, seeking medical care or exercise – were liable to a fine of up to $11,000 if they repeatedly ignored warnings, which could incur a maximum six months in jail.
However, in Sydney’s inner-west, southern and eastern suburbs, reports continue to emerge of NSW Police over-enthusiastically enforcing the Covid-19 restrictions, leading to accusations by some that they are violating civil liberties. For example, City Hub has heard of police patrols stopping elderly people from pausing to rest on park benches while they were undertaking much-needed exercise.
Other reports include: homeless people forcibly moved on – with nowhere to go; a supplier delivering urgently-needed stock to a client still trading was told he shouldn’t do it again; cars driving into McDonalds to collect takeaway meals issued with multiple $1000 fines if there are more than two occupants; a teenager riding a skateboard alone told to return home or face a fine; and parks cleared of walkers.
And yet, across the Anzac and Harbour bridges it appears a different set of laws are in place.
Over the Easter weekend, City Hub received feedback from sources across Sydney’s North Shore, where well over 400 cases of Covid-19 have been reported – the majority in affluent suburbs – including Covid-19 hotspots on the Northern Beaches (over 140 confirmed cases) and Ryde (over 60 confirmed cases).
We were surprised to learn that in parks and reserves across the North Shore, including Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s constituency of Willoughby, people were not only sitting on benches and socialising (albeit spaced at the regulatory 1.5 metres or more apart), but pursuing activities that police patrols in the inner-city, inner west and eastern suburbs are rigorously preventing.
This raises the question whether certain exercises, some done in groups, such as flying kites, throwing frisbees, kicking footballs, hitting tennis balls, surfing, swimming in the sea, riding in dinghies and paragliding (the latter four around the Northern Beaches) are permissible if one crosses Sydney Harbour or Parramatta River, but not if one remains in, say, Newtown, Kings Cross, Redfern, Darlinghurst, Coogee or Bondi?
Since March 17, police have issued 38 Court Attendance Notices, and 295 PINs for breaches of the Public Health Act, including people attending private parties. Two off-duty senior police constables were also fined in early April when a NSW Police patrol discovered them leaving a party in the city, one severely inebriated.
A significant proportion of the blame for the spread of Covid-19 across Australia, which necessitated the strict self-isolation laws, can be laid at the door of the NSW authorities that ordered the restrictions, especially those who oversaw the Ruby Princess cruise ship debacle.
Between March 18-20, either NSW Health or Australian Border Force (the two sides have bounced the blame back and forth) allowed thousands of passengers from four cruise ships, including the aforementioned Ruby Princess, to dock in the heart of Sydney without proper coronavirus checks. This negligence, which has sparked a criminal investigation, brought in hundreds of Covid-19 infected passengers and resulted in at least 18 deaths.
Although Commissioner Fuller announced on 2 April that NSW’s tough coronavirus laws will probably end on June 30, with no current plans to extend them, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said she didn’t want to “raise expectations.”
“If the advice in a couple of weeks is that there might be a couple of aspects we can tweak to provide relief to our citizens then we will take that advice,” Ms Berejiklian declared. “Every time you relax a restriction, more people will get sick. More people will die.”
Ms Berejiklian insisted the tough measures, which include preventing partners living in separate houses from visiting each other and no public gatherings of more than two people, will be subject to review on a monthly basis. “Social distancing will be a part of our lives until we have a vaccine,” she said.
However, according to Professor Brendan Murphy, the Chief Medical Officer for the Australian Govt, a coronavirus vaccine is unlikely to be publicly available for at least 18 months.