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New South Wales Sydney Police
Photograph: Kate Ausburn

Ignoring physical distancing could earn you a $1,000 on-the-spot fine or jail time

Maxim Boon

While physical distancing rules have been in place for several weeks now, they’ve been far from comprehensively adopted by the Australian public. People have continued to congregate in large numbers – such as at Bondi Beach last Friday, where thousands descended on Sydney’s most famous shore to make the most of the fine weather – defying instructions to avoid crowds and maintain at least a 1.5-metre distance from other people at all times. Large gatherings have also persisted within private residences and certain businesses.

One of the issues surrounding these behaviours has been the question of how physical distancing can be enforced. This was answered on the afternoon of March 25, when NSW Police Minister David Elliott revealed that individuals found to be breaching physical distancing guidelines could be slapped with a $1,000 on-the-spot fine. Businesses found to be ignoring instructions to limit their services or close outright would also be subject to financial penalties, up to $5,000 for each infringement. Fines would also apply to anyone breaking social isolation protocols. Currently, anyone who has recently returned to Australia from overseas, anyone crossing state borders, and anyone who has been in contact with a sick person or who is exhibiting any ill health symptoms themselves, must self-isolate for 14 days.

More than 70,000 additional police officers are to be deployed across NSW on patrols in the community specifically to identify anyone breaking physical distancing rules, and anyone with knowledge of an individual or business not following the correct protocols is encouraged to leave a tipoff via the Crime Stoppers hotline. The worst offenders could also face up to six months in jail under the new enforcement powers.

The need for physical distancing was revealed in a sobering light by research from the University of Sydney released on March 25. According to some models, if only 70 per cent of the population observes physical distancing and self-isolation rules the spread of the pandemic can not be halted. At least 80 per cent must rigorously abide by physical distancing principles for the strategy to be effective. If 90 per cent follow the rules, the pandemic in Australia could be over in a matter of weeks, not months as the government has recently projected. 

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