The emergence of the Omicron strain of COVID-19 proves the need for pandemic-specific legislation, according to a senior Victorian government minister.
Transport Infrastructure Minister Jacinta Allan on Monday said negotiations between the government and crossbench MPs on the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Pandemic Management) Bill were continuing in good faith.
The bill gives the premier and health minister the power to declare a pandemic and the ability to enforce restrictions such as lockdowns, mask-wearing, vaccination mandates, isolation for COVID-19 cases and quarantine for returned travellers.
Under the existing state of emergency framework, which is due to expire on December 15, those powers lie with the chief health officer.
“Negotiations are continuing and are likely to continue for the next couple of days,” Ms Allan said.
“What we’ve seen over the last 24 to 48 hours with the emergence of the Omicron strain of the virus is that more than ever, we need this modern pandemic framework to keep Victorians safe.”
At the weekend, the Victorian government announced all international arrivals into the state will have to isolate for 72 hours, while those who have visited one of nine southern African countries of concern will have to undergo 14 days of hotel quarantine.
Ms Allan said the government would not have been able to impose the new rules were it not for the state of emergency currently in place.
“All of this is going to be an important framework for some time to come,” she said.
“Because the pandemic isn’t over. We would like it to be over but it isn’t.”
Opposition Leader Matthew Guy described the Omicron variant as the “fourteenth strain of the coronavirus in 18 months” and accused the government of “dabbling in the politics of fear”.
“The government constantly talking about states of emergency, pandemic bills, that is a thing of the past, that should not be the way we approach a COVID future,” he said.
Mr Guy has vowed to repeal the pandemic legislation if elected in November 2022.
The bill was expected to pass parliament last sitting week with the support of three crossbenchers in the upper house but former Labor minister Adem Somyurek announced he would return from a self-imposed absence to vote against it in its current form.
Mr Somyurek’s return means the government needs the support of one additional crossbencher to pass the legislation before the state of emergency expires.
The attorney-general and health minister have been negotiating with crossbench MPs Rod Barton and Clifford Hayes in a bid to break the deadlock ahead of debate on Tuesday.
The duo has called for greater parliamentary oversight and other checks on the proposed new powers.
Mr Hayes said negotiations were continuing but there are still “issues to work through” if the government is to secure his support.
“I understand the need for some kind of pandemic framework but if we do not achieve a result that withstands expert and community scrutiny, I will not hesitate to vote against the bill,” the Sustainable Australia MP said in a statement to AAP.
Ms Allan did not rule out the possibility of parliament sitting for an additional day or week to ensure the legislation passes.