As Poland braces itself for a likely coronavirus outbreak, parliament has passed a special act outlining emergency powers and responsibilities for public servants and businesses.
In a rare show of partisan agreement in Monday’s late-night session, the bill passed the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament, with a sweeping 400 votes in favour. There were only 11 votes against and seven abstentions, reported the Radio ZET news website.
The law, which comes into force a day after its publication, stipulates that employers should suggest to their employees that they work from home during an outbreak. It also makes provisions for closures of nurseries, kindergartens and schools. Parents who stay home with their children may be granted additional care allowance for up to 14 days, while teachers are to receive their full salaries.
Moreover, the law allows for orders of goods and services which are necessary to counteract the coronavirus outbreak without adhering to public procurement laws. It will also make it possible to sidestep construction law for potential use of buildings in the effort to deal with an outbreak. The new law extends to decisions on spatial planning and protection of monuments.
In an emergency, the health minister may decide the maximum price and rules of distribution for specific medicinal products, devices and food, following consultation with the head pharmaceutical inspector. Pharmacists will be able to write pharmaceutical prescriptions in the event of a patient’s life being endangered by the virus.
In the extreme case of the administration and local government no longer coping with the epidemic, the government can identify particular risk areas and decide on specific local solutions.
Concerns have been expressed that the government’s new emergency powers could be abused on the pretence of protecting public health. Ewa Łętowska, the first person in Poland to hold the position of ombudsman (now known as commissioner for human rights), told Gazeta Wyborcza, “The constitution [already] specifies to what extent the rights of the individual can be limited during a state of emergency.”
“The special act circumvents the constitutions: it introduces limits on liberty and rights without a guarantee of control and legal constraints on arbitrary decisions of the administration,” Łętowska added.
Notably however, the scope of the bill was reduced during committee sessions. The proposal to absolve the government of responsibility for the damage caused by its measures was removed. Time limits have also been set for the special rules, reported Business Insider.
The law comes amid concerns that the government is not prepared for the inevitable outbreak. While there have been no confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Poland, there have been a number of false alarms.
On Monday, 13 people were staying in hospitals in Warsaw with suspicions of coronavirus, reported TVN Warszawa. On Sunday, the neighbouring Czech Republic confirmed its first three cases of the virus.
The coronavirus has already wreaked havoc on Poland’s stock market, which had its worst week in twelve years, with the WIG20 – an index of the 20 largest companies on the Warsaw Stock Exchange (GPW) – falling by 15.64%.
Main image credits: Jakub Porzycki/Agencja Gazeta
Maria Wilczek is deputy editor of Notes from Poland. She also contributes regularly to The Economist and Al Jazeera, and has also written for The Times, Politico Europe, The Spectator and Gazeta Wyborcza.