/ 15 April 2022

MPs worried Health Act amendments will threaten citizens’ autonomy

Debate On 2022 Sona At Cape Town City Hall In South Africa
Joe Phaahla. (Photo by Jaco Marais/Die Burger/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

Health minister Dr Joe Phaahla says his department has extended the period for public comment on amendments to the National Health Act by another seven days to 24 April, after more than 150 000 comments were submitted.

Phaahla was briefing parliament’s portfolio committee on health on proposed changes to health regulations, which would allow the minister and the department of health to navigate the Covid-19 pandemic without consulting other MPs. This is after President Cyril Ramaphosa suspended the two-year national state of disaster, which had guided the government’s response to the crisis.

“We cannot continue using the Disaster Management Act. From a health side …  these are not completely new regulations; these are amendments to regulations that have existed since 2017,” said Phaahla. “There is no desire from the department to want to continue to control people’s lives unnecessarily.”

According to health director general Dr Sandile Buthelezi, the termination of the national state of disaster has created a gap between regulations to manage future pandemics and the current regulations under the National Health Act.

“The Disaster Management Act was the most viable legislative instrument … It’s a tool to manage this virus. We want to keep the bare minimum [regulations] that will assist us to keep infections low and delay any rise in new infections,” Buthelezi said.  

Surveillance and Control

In its current form, the National Health Act allows the minister to “promote, protect, and maintain the health of the population”, but does not give them control over how citizens are treated if they show symptoms of a notifiable illness, like Covid-19.

Buthelezi briefed parliament on the new regulations relating to the surveillance and control of notifiable medical conditions, which describe what the department is allowed to do if someone refuses medical tests or treatment if they are suspected to have a notifiable illness.

If a person refuses to quarantine themselves, or travel to a site of isolation or quarantine facility as directed, a court order must be obtained to compel such a person to quarantine themselves and travel to such site of isolation, quarantine facility or medical screening, according to the draft amendment. 

Freedom Front Plus MP Phillip van Staden commented that “replacing the state of disaster with new regulations is a transfer of power from one minister to another”. Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) MP Naledi Chirwa, added that under this new amendment, “body autonomy is threatened”.

The new regulations are aimed at dealing with the Covid-19 and other significant illnesses outside the national state of disaster, Buthelezi said. However, several MPs said it was clear that Covid-19 was not listed as a notifiable disease in the new Act.

“The transition from the Disaster Management Act to the National Health Act is simply copy and pasted from the National Disaster Act to the National Health Act,” said Democratic Alliance (DA) MP Michele Clarke. 

Deleted public comments 

In addition to the pushback on the department’s ability to issue court orders against citizens, MPs were concerned that many of the 150 000 public comments sent through email were deleted, Clarke said.

“Emails were sent to me and deleted before they could be read. Will this be audited? Is it a technical issue or human error?” Clarke asked. 

According to EFF MP, Dr Suzan Thembekwayo, extending the period for public comment by another week would see submissions surpass 150 000, which would not give the department enough time to go through all of them as carefully as it should.

“If the [department’s] intention is that amendments will fill the gaps in regulations, this leaves only one week for careful review, […] There is a selective choice of what emails the minister will receive and not receive,” Thembekwayo said. 

Some of these regulations give the right to the department to say “come and do a test, or you must quarantine,” according to DA MP Haseena Ismail.

“This is a very important health amendment. It’s affecting citizens’ lives,” said Ismail, adding: “There are inputs and comments deleted without being read; the department does not respond. Therefore, other departments are inundated as people don’t know where else to turn to.”

The public can email comments before 24 April to the health department at [email protected] or send a message on WhatsApp at 0600 123 456.