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Faris Al-Rawi

Much bigger fines may be ahead for certain breaches of the Public Health Ordinance.

A decision on legislation for this is being made today by Cabinet.

The proposed amendment being debated in Parliament tomorrow – including on mask-wearing – will cover multiple violations of the Public Health regulations.

The amendment is being finalised at today’s Cabinet meeting, Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi confirmed yesterday.

The explanatory notes for the Public Health (Amendment) Bill 2020 to be debated also proposes that one clause will increase the maximum penalty for breaches of public health regulations made under this section from $50,000 to $250,000.

The notes were circulated to Members of Parliament yesterday.

The bill being finalised seeks to amend the Public Health Ordinance, (Ch. 12 No. 4) to provide for fixed penalties and fixed penalty notices for offences under the Public Health Ordinance.

It’s part of T&T authorities’ bid to deepen public compliance with Public Health regulations following spiralling community spread of the COVID-19 virus throughout the country. Yesterday, the total active cases rose to 1,204.

The bill will be the first order of business in the new Parliamentary term being launched at 10.30 am tomorrow (Friday). Debate on the bill follows at 1.30 pm. It’s also expected to be debated in the Senate on Saturday.

On Wednesday, the Government informed Opposition leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar about tomorrow’s debate on proposed law concerning mask-wearing. She’d indicated that the Opposition supports mask-wearing in principle and would examine the bill when in hand.

That day, Planning Minister Camille Robinson-Regis said the amendment requires only a simple majority votes for passage and it can be passed without Opposition support.

Yesterday, Al-Rawi didn’t divulge details of the bill (or explanatory notes on it). He, however, noted the Public Health ordinance allows for use of fixed penalties/ticketing system for a range of matters. Penalties for violation of items in the ordinance currently involve a $50,000 fine and six months in jail.

But he said alternative remedies—instead of offences—will be used going forward. He said he’d created a system in law with a menu of items in the ordinance that will be flexible and would depend on the gravity of the situation at any point in time.

Cabinet will decide on the amendment—including penalties—at today’s first meeting for the new term. The meeting was supposed to have been yesterday but was reset for today.

Government’s health advisory team headed by Chief Medical Officer Dr Roshan Parasram are advising Cabinet on the bill.

Under current the Public Health Ordinance, fines of $50,000 and six months’ jail apply to breaches of gatherings beyond five, holding public fetes, party boat operations, contact/team sports, beach/river liming and clubs/gaming/cinema opening.

It also pertains to breaches regarding opening of bars and businesses beyond 10 pm and on operations of churches, water parks, in-house dining and roadside consumption of food near vendors.

The fine applies to public transport which fails to carry half passenger loads and breaches regarding day-care and schools, gyms and small/large businesses.

Refunds proposed

The bill’s explanatory notes form no part of the bill but are intended only to indicate its general purport.

The notes propose that:

* Clause 3 would amend section 105 of the Public Health Ordinance to increase the maximum penalty for breaches of regulations made under this section from $50,000 to $250,000.

* This clause would also provide for regulations to be made for the form of the fixed penalty notice and the duties of clerks and the information to be supplied to them.

* Clause 4 would introduce sections which would empower a police officer, where he reasonably believes that a person has breached regulations, to issue a fixed penalty (FP) notice to the person.

* The notice would charge the person with the commission of the offence and require them to pay the fixed penalty within the time specified in the notice.

* The fixed penalty notice when issued is deemed to be a complaint within the meaning of the Summary Courts law. The notice, from the time of its expiration, is deemed to be a summons.

* If the person who has been issued with an FP notice, pays the fixed penalty before the expiration of the time specified in the FP notice, he/she is entitled to appeal to the magistrate in the district in which he/she paid the fixed penalty regarding the offence and if the court finds in his/her favour, the fixed penalty which was paid, is to be refunded.

* The Minister is empowered to amend the schedule to the Regulation by an order to add or remove offences and to alter the fixed penalties – but in no case can the fixed penalty be more than $20,000.

Yesterday, Health authorities said law enforcement will play a big part of moves to flatten the COVID curve.

Several maxis taxis running long distances (including North/South) have said it wasn’t financially feasible to carry half loads and they’re carrying five minimum.

The Opposition studied aspects of the issue yesterday.

Today’s Cabinet meeting, which will also deal with the issue, will be held at a Diplomatic Centre room structured for COVID protocols.