Deputy Richard Renouf was granted the new abilities after States Members yesterday voted in favour of two propositions brought by the minister.
The first enables him to enact ‘gathering control orders’ – which would not require approval from the States Assembly – to place a limit on the size of events, with enforcement officers able to disperse groups that exceeded the permitted limit. Under the orders officers would be able to direct people not to return to a location for a specified time.
The second proposition provides the minister with the ability to implement a ‘mask requirement’ order, which would require Islanders aged 12 and over to wear masks when in specified shops and other workplaces as customers. According to the proposition, those who fail to do so should be asked to leave the premises and denied service.
The government introduced the new measures on mask-wearing and gatherings last week, but the States decision yesterday gives the minister power to make them legally enforceable.
An infringement of a maximum-gathering limit or failure to wear a mask would both be classed as an offence, and both carry a maximum potential fine of £1,000. However, both propositions state clearly that that highest level of fine would only be issued ‘in exceptional circumstances’.
The decisions came after Deputy Renouf – who said he proposed the new legislation ‘with some reluctance’ – warned that the Island was now entering a ‘dangerous time’ during which enforcement was needed to protect Islanders and prevent another lockdown.
The proposals to restrict gatherings were supported by 44 votes to one after a four-and-a-half-hour debate yesterday. Deputy Steve Ahier voted against the principles of the regulations, while both Deputy Ahier and Deputy Montfort Tadier voted against one of the four elements of the regulations.
States Members then moved on to consider further proposals to make it compulsory for people to wear masks in indoor public spaces and for hospitality venues to be legally required to collect customers’ details for contact tracing if it is required. Those measures were still being debated last night.
Putting forward his proposed measures for regulating gatherings, Deputy Renouf said the Council of Ministers felt that the time had come to turn guidance into legislation.
‘These laws have been brought forward with some reluctance – this does not sit well within the framework of civil liberties afforded to citizens of a democratic state,’ he said.
‘We must recognise that we are entering a dangerous time and, if we don’t have measures that will affect the behaviour of citizens, then there’s a risk that the situation will deteriorate to the point where a lockdown becomes inevitable.
‘Without enforcement, we are going to see increased transmission and we won’t be able to do anything about it. If we get to a situation where our health service becomes overwhelmed, then States Members will have to answer to their constituents about why people won’t [change their behaviour] and I will have to account to my contact-tracing team and I will have to say that the States Assembly didn’t want that to happen, even though it meant the risk of a measure such as a lockdown.’
During the course of the debate, Members spoke with passion and put forward differing views about how best to balance public health with civil liberties.
Several Members supported comments from the Dean of Jersey about the impact on church services and other faith groups that legally limiting gatherings could have.
Deputy Kirsten Morel said: ‘The logic just doesn’t hold up. People can gather in restaurants, eat and drink and talk for hours, but going to church isn’t allowed. It becomes very difficult to support regulations which will lead to orders which entrench such contradictions.’
Creating legislation which applied inside Islanders’ homes was a matter of great concern, Deputy Morel added.
‘This will lead to neighbours spying on neighbours – that is somewhere Jersey has been before and where we would never want to go back,’ he said.
Although Deputy Renouf made clear that the laws would not be enforceable against those aged under 12, some Members said it was wrong to count children as part of the total size of a gathering.
‘While it is good and right that children won’t be able to be prosecuted, they will still be included in the numbers and I’d like to ask why when science shows they are not as likely to transmit the virus. Further work needs to be done,’ said Deputy Louise Doublet.
Deputy David Johnson cited his own family – which includes four young grandchildren – as a typical example of a situation where close family members may not be allowed to spend Christmas together.
Constable Chris Taylor said he had major reservations about the impact on the family Christmas, and on faith gatherings.
An attempt to pause the debate was made by Deputy Montfort Tadier, who proposed a ‘reference back’ during which time the Health Minister would provide more detail on the proposals.
Deputy Tadier’s proposal was the subject of a separate 90-minute debate which included an emotional contribution by External Relations Minister Ian Gorst.
Senator Gorst said he was ‘frustrated, annoyed and tired’ of Covid-19 and the effects it had on people’s lives.
‘Without these measures, the next step is a lockdown,’ he said. ‘We have to make difficult decisions that infringe people’s civil liberties because what’s coming next is a far greater infringement on civil liberties.’
Deputy Tadier said he took offence at being accused of favouring politics over getting the right outcome. ‘’Politics is about achieving the right outcome,’ he said.
The proposition to reference back and return to the topic at next week’s States sitting was defeated by 33 votes to eight.
Meanwhile, Deputy Jess Perchard referred to her attempt to bring in a Covid ‘elimination strategy’ earlier in the summer, noting that her proposals had been supported by only five other Members, with the vast majority preferring a reactive ‘suppress and control’ approach.
‘These measures are now appropriate and should not come as a surprise to those who support the suppress and control strategy – that’s what most Members signed up to,’ she said.
Deputy Perchard also said young people needed to be addressed directly and through appropriate platforms and not admonished for their behaviour.
Responding to fears about the impact on Christmas, Deputy Renouf said: ‘These regulations are designed to be flexible and there is a “winter events” group working to plan what we might do for Christmas.’
The Health Minister added that it would be impractical to exclude children from the limits to gatherings, leaving enforcement officers having to check the ages of attendees at a gathering.