New South Wales government and opposition ignored evidence on disease testing bill, says RSA

Si Gladman / 15 June 2021

The RSA has criticised the New South Wales government and the Labor opposition for ignoring expert advice and the best available evidence in supporting legislation that will subject people to mandatory HIV and hepatitis testing.

Last month, the state parliament passed the Mandatory Disease Testing Bill 2020 despite experts saying the measures in the bill were unnecessary and had the potential to do more harm than good.

The bill is now awaiting Royal Assent.

When a person’s bodily fluid comes into contact with a health, emergency or public sector worker as a result of a deliberate action, such as spitting, the person will have to undergo mandatory HIV and hepatitis testing without consent. 

In evidence given to the parliament, expert stakeholders expressed opposition to the legislation and said the policy had been developed based on misunderstandings about the prevalence and the transmission risk of blood-borne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis B and C.

The Australian Medical Association, for example, stated there was virtually no risk to front-line workers of the transmission of HIV given the low prevalence of it in the community and given that it did not transmit via saliva.

Organisations that work to prevent the transmission of HIV warned that the measures would further stigmatise people with such diseases and exacerbate unfounded fears and anxieties for frontline workers.

Last week, RSA president Meredith Doig wrote to Police and Emergency Services Minister David Elliott (pictured) and new Opposition Leader Chris Minns to express disappointment in the major parties’ support for the bill (see letter below).

Dr Doig wrote that ignoring expert advice and the best available science in the making of public policy could only lead to bad outcomes.

“At the RSA, we support an evidence-based approach to policymaking and the use of robust, reliable and defensible evidence in public debate about controversial social and scientific issues,” Dr Doig wrote.

Upon introducing the bill in November last year, Mr Elliott said the legislation would deliver on the Berejiklian government’s commitment to establish a mandatory disease testing regime to protect frontline workers.

“Our police and emergency and health workers put their lives on the line to protect us every day, and this bill will help to reduce some of the stress and anxiety they may suffer if exposed to the risk of a blood-borne diseases,” he said.

Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at sigladman@rationalist.com.au or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman

Photo: Commonwealth of Australia

 

RSA letter to Minister David Elliott, 7 June 2021

Dear Minister,

On behalf of the Rationalist Society of Australia and our members across New South Wales and Australia, I’m writing to express our disappointment in the government’s support for the Mandatory Disease Testing Bill 2020.

At the RSA, we support an evidence-based approach to policymaking and the use of robust, reliable and defensible evidence in public debate about controversial social and scientific issues.

The Mandatory Disease Testing Bill 2020 will subject people who spit at or assault police and emergency service personnel to mandatory HIV and hepatitis testing without consent. In supporting this bill, your government has ignored the best evidence available and expert advice.

Through the inquiry process, expert stakeholders were overwhelmingly opposed to the bill. They have said mandatory disease testing was unnecessary and based on misunderstandings about the prevalence and the transmission risk of blood-borne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis B and C.

The Australian Medical Association, among other health experts, stated there was virtually no risk to front-line workers of the transmission of HIV given the low prevalence of it in the community and given that it did not transmit via saliva.

We note that health organisations that work to prevent the transmission of HIV, such as ACON and the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations, have warned that the further stigmatisation of people with such diseases would likely be counterproductive and exacerbate unfounded fears and anxieties of frontline workers.

Ignoring expert advice and the best available science in the making of public policy can only lead to bad outcomes. The people of New South Wales deserve better from its major political parties.

Sincerely,
Dr Meredith Doig
President, Rationalist Society of Australia

All the more reason.

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