$500,000 COVID fine

Jamaicans who continue to breach COVID-19 safety protocols could be fined up to $500,000 if the House of Representatives passes the new Disaster Risk Management (Amendment) Act today at Gordon House.

The Bill is expected to be supported by both sides of the House, with Prime Minister Andrew Holness and Opposition Leader Mark Golding expressing support for the importance of public observance of the protocols, including wearing masks, observing six feet of distance between people, and constant sanitisation to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The new Bill, which was tabled at the meeting of the House last Thursday by Minister of Local Government and Rural Development Desmond McKenzie, includes a Sixth Schedule with 10 tiers of offences and penalties with fines ranging from $3,000 to $500,000.

Its Memorandum of Objects and Reasons says that the provisions of the Act which deal with offences are being “bolstered” to make it an offence for failing to comply with measures imposed under Section 26 of the principal law the Disaster Risk Management Act “with the intent of discouraging and ultimately reducing breaches of the measures implemented to address a calamitous event”.

It also pointed out that, in support of the amendments to the new legislation, the fixed penalty regime is being inserted to provide the option of discharging the obligation associated with an offence by payment of a fixed penalty,

The tier of offences and penalties includes the instance in which a person, without reasonable excuse, fails to comply with a direction given or requirement or measures imposed by an authorised officer; or where the person fails to comply with a measure specified; and any offence created by the Act and punishable on summary conviction, being an offence subject to a fixed penalty.

Holness had told the House during his budget presentation last Thursday that the new ticketing system is for enforcement of infection prevention and control measures. He said he was prepared to have it reviewed by a joint select committee of Parliament over the weekend and debated and passed this week, if the Opposition is willing to cooperate.

The Jamaica Observer has learnt that the bipartisan discussions were held last weekend and some agreements were reached, including the decision for both party leaders to be vaccinated yesterday.

Minister of Health and Wellness Dr Christopher Tufton had been warning of stiffer penalties coming for people who breach the COVID-19 restrictions since November last year when he told the media that Attorney General Marlene Malahoo Forte and Minister of Justice Delroy Chuck, as well as McKenzie had been collaborating to implement the new measures which, he predicted, would have been in place before the end of 2020.

“What it will do is enforce the health and safety measures so that we ensure that persons who breach the laws can be held accountable,” Dr Tufton said then.

However, despite repeated reminders of the imminent legislation, a large number of Jamaicans have continued to ignore the protocols, actions that have been linked to the current spike in positive COVID-19 cases.

In its Memorandum of Objects and Reasons, the new Bill also notes that the primary focus of the Disaster Risk Management Act is the mitigation of the effects of natural disasters as a result of natural and man-made hazards.

“While the Act focuses on reducing the country’s vulnerability to natural and man-made hazards which may result from fire, accident, act of terrorism, storm, hurricane, pollution, disease, earthquake, drought, flood, the widespread dislocation of the essential services or other calamity it is the intention to more effectively address the enforcement of measures to combat a pandemic,” the memorandum insists.

“In the wake of the outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 (coronavirus COVID-19) pandemic, the opportunity is therefore being taken to amend the principal Act, to strengthen the provisions of the Act in order to combat any conceivable calamitous event,” it noted.

It also pointed out that, consequently, subsection (1) (a) of Section 26 of the Act is being deleted “to remove any vagueness or ambiguity” as to the circumstances which would lead to the declaration of a “disaster area”.

It says that, in support of that event, the definition of disaster is also being amended to include events such as “a hazardous substance incident, a nuclear or radiation emergency, as well as a pandemic”.

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