More than 792,000 tests have been conducted in Victoria so far as part of the door-to-door testing blitz by health authorities. A new, less invasive test is being used in priority suburbs.
Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights says a person must not be “subjected to medical… treatment without his or her full, free and informed consent”.
A Liberty Victoria spokesman told The Age that he believed Victoria’s parliament would need to pass a law allowing the charter to be overriden if the government wanted to make testing compulsory.
However, the Premier on Sunday threatened fines for returning travellers who refuse COVID-19 tests.
Australia’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Michael Kidd said anyone who was offered a test should accept it.
“My request to all the people in Victoria is if someone approaches you and asks you to please do a test, please comply.,” he said. “These tests are there to protect us all.
“Many people are not asymptomatic but have very mild symptoms, which may indicate COVID-19, and this is why it is absolutely essential that anyone who has even the mildest symptoms of fever, cold, flu-like symptoms arrange to get tested and especially for those in the areas of community transmission in Melbourne, stay-at-home waiting for the results.”
Professor Tony Blakely, an epidemiologist with the University of Melbourne, said he did not believe authorities could ever “ethically or legally” force residents with no symptoms of coronavirus to undergo testing.
“To try and compel everybody to have a test would be starting to reach over into breaches of civil liberties so there is some serious weighing up here,” he said.
“Now, there is legislation that does give public health authorities power to force people to be treated or detained if they are posing a high public health risk to society. For example, somebody who knew they had tuberculosis and they were coughing all over people to try and infect them. But to say that somebody who has refused a coronavirus test and is not symptomatic is endangering people’s lives well, that probably would not pass a legal test nor an ethical one.”
He said in an “ideal world” 100 per cent of people would agree to being tested, but he suspected some of the residents who refused testing who had the virus would still be detected.
“They will be picked up again later through contracting tracing, not all of them, but some of them,” he said. “From a public health point of view, if you’re trying to stamp out community transmission, if you can get the vast majority of people tested then you can probably know enough to stamp out that community transmission and breaking the chain of transmission.”
Liberty Victoria spokesman Michael Stanton lives in Maidstone, one of the suburbs that is headed back into lockdown.
He said he would have a test if asked, but defended other people’s right to refuse.
“It’s important people have freedom of choice in relation to testing,” he said. “It is statistically fairly small the number of people who have refused.
“It’s an invasive test that’s being done, and people have the right to refuse.
“It would be too high a cost [on people’s personal liberties] to in effect forcibly require people to undertake a medical procedure against their will, especially when so many people are consenting.”
University of NSW epidemiologist Professor Mary-Louise McLaws said the reasons people might refuse testing were vast: from lack of understanding about the dangers of the virus, privacy reasons to feeling uncomfortable about the invasiveness of a nose or throat swab test.
Profesor McLaws also suspected authorities had a strong public health case to change laws and make tests mandatory given there was no vaccine in sight.
“We cooperate with roadside testing for drugs and alcohol, we don’t have a choice, it’s the law and we all comply because we have seen the damage that certain drugs or alcohol can cause through speeding and poor judgment on the roads,” she said.
“What we have to do is ask the community to seriously consider the ramifications if they are in a hotspot community and they refuse testing.”
Omar Nazir, working behind the counter at the Fawkner Kebab House – Fawkner has just been thrust back into lockdown – shook his head when asked if he could understand why people would refuse a test.
“That’s not OK,” he said. “Everyone has to do the COVID-19 tests, because of safety.”
Mr Nazir said he had got himself tested a few weeks before even though he did not have any symptoms. “Just for safety,” he said.
Given the growing scale of the outbreak in Fawkner, Mr Nazir said the suburb should be locked down.
“Lockdown is better, for everyone – because first life, and then everything,” he said.
“Maybe people don’t follow the rules, and there are small gatherings everywhere? No one cares. We used to care more.”
Melissa Cunningham is The Age’s health reporter.
Liam is The Age and Sydney Morning Herald’s science reporter