Senate passes pandemic response law after a year of wrangling


Senators have approved a new law giving the government wide-ranging powers to deal with a future pandemic after a year of political wrangling.

The new public health act replaces the emergency orders and temporary measures which health ministers used to contain the spread of coronavirus from February 2020.

The upper house voted by 49 to 24 to endorse the law proposed by health minister Ernst Kuipers, closing a legal gap that opened up last May, when senators refused to extend the temporary law that underpinned measures such as compulsory testing, school closures and a night curfew.

Shouts of “traitors” and “shame on you” rang down from the public galleries when the vote was confirmed on Tuesday evening.

Before December 2020, when the law was first passed, the government relied on local emergency powers to introduce and enforce social distancing measures.

Masks and quarantine

The new law authorises the health minister to introduce compulsory testing and quarantine during a pandemic, close venues such as shops, restaurants and theatres, and enforce social distancing and the wearing of face masks.

However, some of the more controversial rules, including overnight curfews and vaccination passes to gain access to venues, have been dropped from the legislation.

Senators had called on the cabinet to bring in a permanent legal framework when they voted against extending the temporary law last May. But some legislators also argued that ministers should wait until the measures taken during the pandemic had been evaluated.

Opposition parties ranging from Geert Wilders’s PVV to GroenLinks were also concerned that measures such as closing schools could still be introduced by the back door under a clause that allows the government to take “emergency powers” in extreme cases.

Health minister Ernst Kuipers confirmed that the option was available, but insisted the emergency powers would only be used in a “situation that undermines our society”.

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