Liabilities under public health laws and regulations
Governments all over the world in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have had to invoke provisions of existing Public health laws or rolled out new ones as part of measures to curb the spread of the pandemic. The federal government of Nigeria and Lagos State as well as some other states in Nigeria have also made regulations to tackle the pandemic.
This article will highlight some of the liabilities and penalties for flouting the provisions of certain public health laws.
The quarantine Act
This Act dates to as far back as 1926. It is an Act to provide for and regulate the imposition of quarantine and to make other provisions for preventing the introduction into and spread in Nigeria, and the transmission from Nigeria, of dangerous infectious diseases. Section 3 gives the President the mandate to declare any place within Nigeria an “infected local area”. Section 4 of the Act amongst other things empowers the President to make regulations to prescribe steps to be taken when an area becomes infected and prevent its spread.
This Act did not specifically enumerate the acts that would amount to an offence under it. However, section 5 of the Act states that any person contravening any of the regulations made under the Act shall be liable to a fine of N200 or to imprisonment for a term of six months or to both. Section 7 of the Act provides that proceedings for imposing any fine or imprisonment under this Act or for recovering any expenses incurred or charged by the Government in carrying out the provisions of this Act may be commenced before and determined by any magistrate.
Quarantine ships regulations
This Regulation dates back to 1968. It is a subsidiary legislation to the Quarantine Act. It basically deals with precautionary measures to be taken when a ship is believed to have been in an infected area or has someone who has an infectious disease on board. For the purposes of these Regulations, a ship shall not be deemed to have been in an infected area if, without having itself been in contact with the shore, it has landed there only mail, passengers and baggage, or has taken on board there only mail, fuel, water or stores or passengers with or without baggage who have not themselves been in contact either with the shore or with any person from the shore. The regulations provide for the following offences and penalties;
(a) failure to comply with a condemnation notice of any food items found to be contaminated on the ship
(b) failure to comply with an abatement notice issued by the port health officer to abate any nuisance in its port area which may in the opinion of the port health officer endanger health or give rise to infection, and it shall be the duty of the port authority to comply with the notice.
(c) contravening any of the provisions of the regulations or failure to comply with any direction given by the port health officer under the regulations.
The prescribed penalty under the regulations is a fine of N100 or imprisonment for six months or to both such fine and imprisonment.
Lagos State infectious diseases (emergency prevention) regulations 2020
The Regulations were made in March 2020 pursuant to the Quarantine Act and Public health law of Lagos State and specifically as a measure to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. The Regulations enumerated the following as offences;
- Inflation of prices of goods;
- Hoarding of goods;
iii. Failure to comply with a restriction, prohibition or requirement imposed under the regulations;
- Provision of false or misleading information intentionally or recklessly with a view to causing panic or disaffection amongst members of the public;
- Obstruction of any person carrying out its duties under the regulations;
- Doing anything contrary to the provision of the regulations.
Section 17 of the regulations provides for the penalties for the breach or obstruction of the implementation of the provisions of the regulations and the penalties are prison terms or fines or both in line with the Quarantine Act and Public Health Law of Lagos state. The Public health law of Lagos State provides for a fine of One Hundred Thousand Naira (N100,000.00) or to any non-custodial sentence and if a corporate body, to a fine of Five Hundred Thousand Naira (N500,000).
There is no doubt that the Quarantine Act and the Quarantine Ship regulations are very old. The fines prescribed in both of them are no longer realistic. There is definitely a need to repeal or amend them to reflect current realities.
It would be worthwhile to look at the possibility of expanding the scope of the offence of provision of false or misleading information intentionally or recklessly specified in the Lagos State infectious diseases (Emergency prevention) Regulations 2020 to include withholding of relevant information from health care providers in circumstances where such withheld information is likely to endanger the lives of health care providers and other patients in a medical facility.