National covid inquiry excludes state actions

4 minute read

There will be no questions asked about the unilateral decisions by states and territories, but everything else is fair game.

A trio of high-powered women will conduct a year-long inquiry into Australia’s covid response announced today by the federal government.

Former director-general of NSW Health Robyn Kruk AO, Deakin University chair in epidemiology Professor Catherine Bennett and health economist and national chair of the Women in Economics Network, Dr Angela Jackson will lead the taskforce.

“This inquiry will look at the government’s responses and will give advice on what worked, what didn’t, and what we can do in the future to best protect Australians from the worst of any future events,” said PM Anthony Albanese in announcing the inquiry, while Health Minister Mark Butler said the panellists had “the collective expertise to take a thorough look into all aspects of Australia’s response – and I encourage members of the public, when they have the opportunity, to have their say”.

No timeline has yet been announced in terms of submissions and public hearings, but the final report will be delivered by 30 September 2024.

The inquiry’s terms of reference are now available online. Controversially, the inquiry will NOT look into actions taken unilaterally by state and territory governments or international programs and activities assisting foreign countries.

AMA president Professor Steve Robson said it was difficult to see how the inquiry could avoid taking a close look at the actions of states and territories during the pandemic.

“The reality is that our response to covid involved all levels of government in areas like health service delivery, public health restrictions, vaccination roll out and economic support for businesses and individuals,” he said.

“Many decisions were interrelated, and the inquiry needs to get the full picture if it is to come up with robust and effective recommendations.”

Professor Terry Slevin, CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia, said it was imperative that the inquiry focused on solutions, rather than blame.

“We believe the inquiry should focus on finding solutions and learning lessons for the future,” he said.

“It should not be a legalistic nor political mechanism to find and attribute blame and seek retribution.

“We must approach this process with openness and honesty, looking to determine what we did well, what we could have done better, and how we can improve our systems and our processes to help protect the health of current and future generations of people in Australia.”

The inquiry’s terms of reference include:

  • Governance, including the role of the Commonwealth government, responsibilities of state and territory governments, national governance mechanisms (such as National Cabinet, the National Coordination Mechanism and the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee) and advisory bodies supporting responses to covid;
  • Key health response measures (for example across covid vaccinations and treatments, key medical supplies such as personal protective equipment, quarantine facilities, and public health messaging);
  • Broader health supports for people impacted by covid and/or lockdowns (for example mental health and suicide prevention supports, and access to screening and other preventive health measures);
  • International policies to support Australians at home and abroad (including with regard to international border closures and securing vaccine supply deals with international partners for domestic use in Australia);
  • Support for industry and businesses (for example responding to supply chain and transport issues, addressing labour shortages, and support for specific industries);
  • Financial support for individuals (including income support payments);
  • Community supports (across early childhood education and care, higher education, housing and homelessness measures, family and domestic violence measures in areas of Commonwealth government responsibility); and,
  • Mechanisms to better target future responses to the needs of particular populations (including across genders, age groups, socio-economic status, geographic location, people with disability, First Nations peoples and communities and people from culturally and linguistically diverse communities).

The inquiry should also provide guidance into the scope, resources, and roles that can be played by the promised Australian Centre for Disease Control, Professor Slevin suggested.

“This is a once-in-a-100-year opportunity to get this new piece of public health architecture right. [The ACDC] will need a clear scope, proper governance to ensure it is expert and independent and it will need proper resources to tackle the significant challenge.

“The challenge includes preparedness, leadership, and prevention of communicable diseases.

“It should also lead in the prevention of chronic diseases, which remain the slow-moving tsunami of health issues plaguing Australia.”

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