Nova Scotia

The powers of N.S.'s Health Protection Act and what can happen if you don't listen

The orders coming from Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health to combat the spread of coronavirus in the province are the result of powerful legislation that afford Dr. Robert Strang the ability to take extreme measures when deemed necessary to preserve public health.

Chief medical officer can get court orders in cases where people ignore protocols

Dr. Robert Strang is Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health. He recently used the Health Protection Act to close public schools and daycares. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The orders coming from Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health to combat the spread of coronavirus in the province are the result of powerful legislation that afford Dr. Robert Strang the ability to take extreme measures when deemed necessary to preserve public health.

Strang on Sunday used the power in the Health Protection Act to close public schools and daycares, and make it mandatory for anyone returning from travel outside the country to self-isolate for 14 days, even if they aren't showing symptoms.

The act gives Strang and other public health officials the ability to enforce those orders by going to the courts, if necessary.

"We really believe that the vast majority of people are going to do the right thing here," Strang told reporters during a news conference Monday to discuss two new presumptive cases in the province.

The province announced two additional presumptive cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, which brings the total number of cases in Nova Scotia to seven.

If someone is aware of a person in their community ignoring the order to self-isolate, Strang encouraged them to have a "polite conversation" with that person to help them understand why it's so important to follow protocols.

Failing that, people should contact local public health officials, he said.

"We can't think about ourselves. We have to think about our community and what we're doing to help protect everybody else in our community," he said.

If people don't comply, the act provides "quite extraordinary powers" to the courts and police to enforce the rules, said Wayne MacKay, professor emeritus at Dalhousie University's Schulich School of Law.

"I think a lot of people would be surprised at how broad they are, and it's really just a question of the political will to use it, but it's there if they want to use it," he told CBC's Information Morning on Tuesday.

According to the act, the chief medical officer of health and other officials can go as far as asking a judge to have someone in non-compliance taken into custody and admitted to a quarantine or isolation facility and be examined by a doctor and treated if necessary.

The act also gives officials the ability to enter someone's home or business "and use reasonable force to carry out the act," MacKay said, adding the legislation doesn't specifically mention whether a search warrant is needed.

Like all statutes in Canada, the Health Protection Act must abide by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but MacKay said that still allows for reasonable limits to people's freedom.

"Here, the courts are going to be pretty sympathetic to putting reasonable limits on people in this extreme situation," he said.

Wayne MacKay, professor emeritus at Dalhousie University's Schulich School of Law, says the Health Protection Act provides 'quite extraordinary powers' to the courts and police to enforce the rules if people don't comply. (Nick Pearce)

In the most extreme cases, the chief medical officer can recommend to the health minister that a public health emergency be declared, a situation that would allow for limiting access to certain parts of the province or evacuating people from an area, among other options.

That situation would also allow the health minister the ability to require certain spaces be used as isolation or quarantine facilities.

MacKay stressed that these government powers are temporary.

"I think it's a time for clear, tough rules in order to get through this," he said.

On Monday, both Strang and Premier Stephen McNeil said they're heartened by reports they're hearing of how responsive people are to the protocols, all in the name of reducing the spread of COVID-19. Those efforts include limiting public gatherings to 150 people or fewer.

Premier Stephen McNeil says the province will do whatever is necessary to preserve public health. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Strang was scheduled to have a conference call with his counterparts across the country Tuesday morning and one of the things on the agenda was whether that cap should be lowered. McNeil acknowledged such a move would create even more hardships on businesses, but said if a certain measure is deemed to be in the best interest of the public, they will exercise their authority as necessary.

"We'll do whatever we have to do to protect public health," he said.

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With files from CBC's Information Morning