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In the NT, there's no legal requirement to physically distance outdoors to stop coronavirus spread

ABC Health logo ABC Health 30/07/2020 By Lauren Roberts
a man wearing a suit and tie: NT Chief Health Officer Hugh Heggie is asking Territorians to keep listening to the advice of NT Health. (ABC News: Felicity James) © Provided by ABC Health NT Chief Health Officer Hugh Heggie is asking Territorians to keep listening to the advice of NT Health. (ABC News: Felicity James)

The Northern Territory is the only place in Australia where there is no legal requirement for people to physically distance when outdoors.

The NT's chief health officer Hugh Heggie revoked that order in June, prior to Darwin's Black Lives Matter protest and as contact sport returned.

But now the NT has opened its borders, will social-distancing laws be tightened again and why did they change in the first place?

Why is there no legal requirement to keep our distance?

In a COVID-19 direction dated June 11, Dr Heggie revoked the legal requirement for people in the NT to keep their distance while outdoors, and yesterday confirmed he was the only Australian chief health officer to do so.

"The Territory is the only jurisdiction to have removed the legal requirements in relation to outdoors physical distancing," he said.

The move came two days before Darwin's planned Black Lives Matter protest, but Dr Heggie said the direction had nothing to do with the event.

Instead, Dr Heggie said the timing related to stage three of the Territory's 'Road Map to the New Normal', which allowed contact sport to return from June 5.

"Had the directions for physical distancing outdoors not been revoked, anyone participating in sport would have been committing an offence," Dr Heggie explained.

"Changing the legal requirements around physical distancing outdoors was an important step in helping to normalise life in the NT. As I have said publicly on a number of occasions, the timing of the announcement was totally unrelated to the Black Lives Matter rally in Darwin."

Of course, Territorians are still being urged to keep 1.5m away from people they don't know at all times, in a bid to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Indoors, it is slightly different.

Territory businesses need to lodge a COVID-19 Safety Plan before they can re-open. As part of that plan, businesses need to outline how they plan to make sure people are physically distancing.

These plans are legally enforceable, and businesses who don't stick to them can be fined.

Now borders are open, will the rules change again?

On July 17, the NT opened its borders, allowing most Australians to visit the NT and move freely without isolating first.

Anyone who enters the NT from a coronavirus hotspot — which includes Port Stephens, the Eurobodalla Shire, Victoria and Greater Sydney — must undergo two weeks of supervised quarantine upon their arrival at a personal cost of $2,500.

More than 16,000 people have crossed into the Territory since the NT reopened its borders and there are about 400 people in quarantine.

Dr Heggie was asked if the legal requirement to physically distance should return now interstate tourists were venturing north.

"Territorians must continue to observe the key principles which are good hand hygiene, physical distancing from people we do not know and staying home if we are showing symptoms as well as seeking a test if we are sick," he said.

"If we continue to apply these key principles we will continue to control the virus here in the Territory. If we do that there will be no need to reintroduce a legal requirement around physical distancing in public."

Territorians mingling with more people

Territorians are now interacting with, on average, 11.5 people a day who they don't live with — the highest rate of mingling in Australia. The Australian average is about eight people a day.

Dr Heggie says as long as Territorians keep following the "key principles" such as regular hand washing and being tested when sick, the NT will continue to control the spread of coronavirus

"The Northern Territory has been the most successful jurisdiction in the country in dealing with COVID-19," he said.

"Unlike other states and territories, we have had no cases of community transmission. Because of our success in dealing with the virus, Territorians have never had to endure the same levels of restrictions as people elsewhere in Australia.

"We have also been able to ease controls earlier than other states and territories which, naturally, has led to increased non-household contact."

Dr Heggie says the easing of controls has allowed Territorians and NT businesses to return to the new normal, but his team will keep monitoring the situation closely and will continue to base decision-making on the best available epidemiological evidence.

Until a vaccine becomes available, there is always the potential for the virus to spread, regardless of where people live, Dr Heggie says.

"Until we have a vaccine, our personal responsibility is to continue to apply the key principles," he added.

Prior to borders opening, Chief Minister Michael Gunner said one of his biggest concerns about coronavirus was "not if, but when" the NT recorded its next case.

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