Alþingi, the Icelandic Parliament, passed amendments to the nation’s Act on Health Security and Communicable Diseases last week. The vote in support of the amendments was unanimous. The goal of the changes was to clarify what measures authorities may implement to reduce the risk of epidemics and the spread of contagious diseases and under which circumstances. The legislation applies to measures such as quarantine, isolation, and contact tracing, as well as social restrictions. The government aims to do a comprehensive revision of the Act once the COVID-19 pandemic is over.
Amendments Clarify Limits of Authority and Handling of Personal Information
The amendments passed last week inserted a new section defining important terms used in the Act, such as epidemic, isolation, gathering ban, and screening. The changes also better define the responsibilities and authority of the Chief Epidemiologist as well as other health officials. For example, several new paragraphs were added to clarify the handling of personal information, stipulating that data used for contact tracing, for example, may not be stored or used for any other purpose. The Chief Epidemiologist is responsible for ensuring personal data is protected and utilised according to law.
Another new paragraph clarifies in what context restrictions may be implemented by authorities. As per the amendment, measures such as the closure of schools or businesses “shall not be applied unless absolutely necessary to protect human health and life. In applying these measures, as well as in repealing them, moderation and equality shall be observed, taking into account other protected interests, in particular those enjoying the protection of the constitution and human rights treaties to which Iceland is a party.”
Legal Framework Necessary to Support Border Restrictions
Iceland’s pandemic legislation has been in public discussion in recent weeks, particularly in the context of border restrictions due to COVID-19. When the Chief Epidemiologist initially recommended implementing mandatory border testing last year, the Health Ministry believed Iceland did not have the legal framework to support the measure. The measure was, however, implemented on January 15 and now all travellers arriving from abroad must undergo double testing and five-day quarantine.
Some parties, including from within the police department, have been vocal about the need to clarify how authorities may react in cases where individuals refuse to follow infection prevention regulations, such as by breaching quarantine or refusing testing at the border. The updated Act gives police chiefs the authority to deport foreign citizens who are not residents of Iceland if they breach infection prevention regulations or refuse to comply with them. The Chief Epidemiologist is also given the authority to place individuals in monitored quarantine or isolation in official government facilities, but only if they have already breached such regulations.
The government plans to complete a full revision of the Act on Health Security and Communicable Diseases, but it will likely not be done until the COVID-19 pandemic is over. A government notice states that “it was considered important that no changes be made to the [Act] that would change or complicate the infection prevention administration while the coronavirus pandemic rages.”