Total control: New law could give sweeping powers to State Public Health Office

If approved, starting July, the government will be allowed to track your movements without your consent, impose lockdown without Parliamentary approval.

James Fassinger

Written by James Fassinger
Published on 01.12.2020 10:07 (updated on 01.12.2020)

A draft amendment to the law on the Protection of Public Health, which the Health Ministry has prepared and the government has released, centralizes the regional public health offices under the more powerful State Public Health Office.

Under the amendment, which the government discussed yesterday, the State Public Health Office will be headed by the chief public health officer, who is deputy health minister, and have the right to close or limit the operation of schools, shops, services, travel and limit public transport services in a way similar to the present lockdown restrictions – without Parliament having to declare a nationwide state of emergency.

The Reconstruction of State civic group has criticized the amendment, saying it would give stronger powers to the office, primarily the deputy health minister who is the chief public health officer.

"The role of Big Brother is to be played by the Office of the State Hygienic Service, which would be given the opportunity to interfere in basic human rights, to close schools, shops, restrict business and even snoop on citizens. The whole situation is all the more serious because the government has kept the preparation of this proposal secret," TOP 09 chairwoman, Markéta Pekarová Adamová told iDnes.

According to STAN Chairman Vít Rakušan, the centralization of hygienic stations would not bring anything good at present. "After all, we cannot, at the behest of one person, embark on words or letters to sneak people without it being controlled in any way," he said. According to him, the government's efforts go beyond the framework set by the Constitution of the Czech Republic.

Moreover, expert on health law Ondrej Dostal has challenged the bill, since it does not include compensation of the damage caused by the ministry's restrictions. Upon learning of the amendment, Dostal tweeted:

"Attention! Attention! During a legislative emergency [meeting], the government wants to change the law on protection, public health, so that the Minister of Health, without the control of the Parliament, can close universities, shops, establishments, prevent gatherings, etc. They do not write about damages. Basically Hamáček's power of empowerment, only well hidden."

The amendment will also have the right to demand data and location information on any person determined to have an infectious disease from mobile phone operators. Data on movement for up to three weeks prior could be collected. The operator will then send a message to the mobile phone user that information on their movements were given to the public health officials.

The Pirate party tweeted in protest after learning of the data collection on citizens amendment which they say was prepared 'in secret'.

"The government kept secret the preparation of the law on the centralization of the management of hygienic stations. The proposal appeared just before the start of today's cabinet meeting. It gives the planned Office of the State Hygiene Service the power to monitor citizens' mobile phones in the event that an official discovers an infection with a COVID."

With the amended law, the State Public Health Office will also be entitled to ban public or private events during which people gather or set the rules for their organization, including setting the number of participants. This ban will not limit the freedom of peaceful assembly and concern meetings of political bodies and courts, according to the draft amendment.

Health care and social care providers may be ordered to reserve beds for some type of patients, ban visits or limit their operation. State institutions, municipalities and the self-rule regions may be ordered to put some persons in quarantine or isolation and to use disinfectants, administer medicines and provide extraordinary vaccination.

If approved by Parliament, the new law is to go into effect in July 2021. Until now, the powers of regional public health offices have been defined only rather generally and concerned only the given region.

The Health Ministry will be required to release information on the spread of the pandemic. Apart from the currently applied measures, an analysis of the epidemiological situation, an estimate of its development and main data on the infection must be released.

The amendment reacts to the spread of COVID-19 and the adopted measures. The system of public health offices will be centralized at the request of Prime Minister Andrej Babis (ANO). The ministry says changes have been made in the system of public health offices to make it more flexible, effective and coordinated.

Currently, if an extraordinary measure is in the form of a general measure, it needs to be supported by an assessment of risks based on the present epidemiological situation. Czech courts cancelled some restrictions due to lack of evidence supporting them, for example a Health Ministry order on wearing face masks and the Prague Public Health Office order on the closing of colleges and universities.