Public Health Act - Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What prompted the revamping of the Health Act and developing new legislation?
  2. How does the Public Health Act help protect the public against pandemics and public health emergencies?
  3. How extensive are the powers to enforce quarantine and other protective measures during an outbreak?
  4. What protections are in place for individuals affected by a health officer’s orders e.g. if a person is ordered to be under quarantine?
  5. How does the Public Health Act protect the privacy of individuals in situations where information is collected by public health officials to monitor the incidence of communicable diseases and for controlling the spread of hazardous agents?
  6. How does this Act affect provincial authority over municipalities in the areas of environmental protection (e.g. water, air, etc.)?
  7. How does the Public Health Act change powers or responsibilities of health authorities and local government?
  8. Does the Act result in the downloading of provincial responsibility for public health protection and improvement to local governments?
  9. How does the Public Health Act relate to the Drinking Water Protection Act and Food Safety Act?
  10. How does the Public Health Act affect jurisdiction over public health services on Indian Reserves?
  11. Does the Public Health Act affect cultural practices?
  12. How does the Act help address issues of mental health and addictions?

  1. What prompted the revamping of the Health Act and developing new legislation?
    The BC Health Act had been added to and updated over the years since it was introduced in 1893 but it had not had a major overhaul and since that time, while new public health challenges have emerged. Revising the name of the Act to the Public Health Act more clearly defines the purpose of the updated legislation.

    Updating the legislation helps in being prepared to deal with health concerns such as SARS, the threats of pandemic influenza and bio-terrorism, the rising burden of chronic disease and the need for a strong focus on disease prevention.

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  1. How does the Public Health Act help protect the public against pandemics and public health emergencies?
    The Act enhances the ability to take immediate action in the event of a public health emergency such as a pandemic, and ensuring that health officials have the authority they need to take actions to protect the health of the public.

    Examples of protective actions include quarantine and isolation measures, and closures of public places to help prevent the spread of a disease or health hazard.

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  1. How extensive are the powers to enforce quarantine and other protective measures during an outbreak?
    Medical health officers are empowered to quarantine and isolate individuals who pose a significant risk of spreading serious communicable diseases to others, but enforcement of these powers would only be used for individuals who do not voluntarily comply with medical health officers’ orders.

    An additional provision is included to allow a quarantine order to be made to a group of people to expedite the prevention of disease. This could apply, for example, if employees at a work site or a group of people at a social gathering were exposed to a disease that posed a serious public health risk.

    The ability to quarantine groups of individuals was an important power that had to be provided to deal with the SARS situation in Ontario; hence B.C. health officials are provided with similar powers.

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  1. What protections are in place for individuals affected by a health officer’s orders e.g. if a person is ordered to be under quarantine?
    The Act allows for reconsideration of orders by the health officer, and review of orders by a senior health officer or the Provincial Health Officer. Judicial review is also available.

    The Act also requires accountability for emergency powers exercised by health officials; individuals affected must be given written reasons and/or rights to reconsideration or re-assessment once the emergency ends.

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  1. How does the Public Health Act protect the privacy of individuals in situations where information is collected by public health officials to monitor the incidence of communicable diseases and for controlling the spread of hazardous agents?
    The conditions under which health officials may request or disclose information are limited and specific. How information or records will be collected, used and disclosed will be subject the requirements of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, or the Personal Information Protection Act, as well as additional requirements to be prescribed in the regulations. Consultations with interested/affected stakeholders and the Information and Privacy Commissioner will precede the development of any new regulations.

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  1. How does this Act affect provincial authority over municipalities in the areas of environmental protection (e.g. water, air, etc.)?
    This Act does not change provincial authority over municipalities in these areas as these areas are covered by other legislation such as the Drinking Water Protection Act, the Environmental Management Act, and the Community Charter.

    The Act supports and clarifies the important working relationship between municipalities, regional health authorities, and the provincial government.

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  1. How does the Public Health Act change powers or responsibilities of health authorities and local government?
    This Act is not intended to increase powers and responsibilities, but rather clarify and modernize the legislative terminology underpinning these areas.

    The Act clarifies the public health obligations for local governments to reflect their relationship with the regional health authorities.

    The abilities of local governments to directly issue health hazard abatement orders was removed as they no longer have staff with that expertise. Local governments are able to request that medical health officers issue such orders, and they may be given powers to deal with specific health hazards if they so desire.

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  1. Does the Act result in the downloading of provincial responsibility for public health protection and improvement to local governments?
    Public health protection and improvement is a shared responsibility between the Ministry of Health, health authorities, local governments and many others and that sharing of responsibility will continue in much the same way it currently stands.
    • The Act with helps to clarify how that responsibility is shared.
    • No downloading of responsibility is included.
    • The minister is required to consult with local governments if additional responsibilities for local governments are planned.

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  1. How does the Public Health Act relate to the Drinking Water Protection Act and Food Safety Act?
    The Drinking Water Protection Act and Food Safety Act are specific to drinking water safety and food safety protection. The Act covers areas such as communicable disease and environmental health hazards that are not covered by these other Acts. Health officials may also use the Public Health Act to complement their powers under these other Acts.

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  1. How does the Public Health Act affect jurisdiction over public health services on Indian Reserves?
    The Act will not change current jurisdiction on reserves. Provincial, regional, and federal officials will continue to work with First Nations in the delivery of public health services.

    This Act enables alternate working arrangements for regional health authority medical health officers and environmental health officers to provide services to First Nations should the First Nations so desire such an arrangement.

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  1. Does the Public Health Act affect cultural practices?
    No, not unless a particular cultural practice creates a health hazard or increases the spread of communicable diseases. If such a rare circumstance were to arise, public health officials would work with the cultural group regarding continuation of the practices while preventing a public health hazard or spread of communicable diseases.

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  1. How does the Act help address issues of mental health and addictions?
    • People with mental health and substance use problems are present in every community, and it is important that appropriate health services can be provided.
    • Promoting health and caring for the needs of people with mental illness and substance related problems is a shared responsibility between government, health authorities, many organizations, and the broader community.
    • The Public Health Act can support the inclusion of services for this population in all communities by allowing the minister to require that communities make provision for inclusion of services.
    • In addition, those communities which obstruct the inclusion of such services through their zoning or planning processes could have those obstructions set aside.
    • The intent of such action would be to ensure that all communities take their fair share of responsibility for helping their vulnerable citizens who are in critical need of community support.

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