Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has announced a year-long inquiry into the Commonwealth Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic to “identify lessons learned to improve Australia’s preparedness for future pandemics”.
The review will exclude the decisions made by state and territory governments from its terms of reference, but ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr said the inquiry will “be our focus over the next 12 months”.
The inquiry will adopt a whole-of-government view in recognition of the wide-ranging impacts of COVID-19 across portfolios and the community, which will include the role of the Commonwealth Government and “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-19”.
It will also include key health response measures such as vaccinations and treatments, public health messaging, distribution of medical supplies, broader health support for people with COVID-19, policies to support Australians at home and abroad, financial support for individuals and businesses, and community support.
However, the “actions taken unilaterally by state and territory governments” will not be included in the scope of the inquiry, nor will international programs and activities assisting foreign countries.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton said the Prime Minister was “making a mockery of his own words before the election” by not including every level of government in the inquiry.
“The significant issue of COVID needs to be properly investigated. That period of our history needs to be properly understood,” he said.
“The Prime Minister owes it to the Australian people to have a proper understanding of what happened at a state and federal level in relation to COVID, the policies, the decisions that were being made.
“If we don’t learn the lessons of what happened during the course of COVID, good and bad, by every level of government, how do we expect to go into the next pandemic not understanding what had happened in the previous one? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Mr Barr said he welcomed the inquiry and praised Australia’s pandemic response, and the ACT Government will actively participate in the inquiry where required.
“Australia’s pandemic response was the most significant government endeavour this century, from the coordination of emergency health care through to economic support and the vaccine rollout,” he said.
“The ACT Government will be an active participant in the Commonwealth’s inquiry where requested by the inquirers. The terms of reference for this inquiry are broad and will cover a lot of what a Territory-level inquiry would review. This inquiry will be our focus over the next 12 months.
“Within the national response, the primary objectives of the ACT Government’s COVID-19 public health response were to prevent the loss of life from the virus, achieve very high levels of community vaccination and reduce the burden of COVID-19 on our health system. On this front, our local response was particularly successful.
“Beyond the public health response, our economic support measures were also successful in preventing a recession, keeping Canberrans employed and providing a lifeline to business to get through to the other side of the pandemic.”
The Prime Minister has appointed an independent panel of “three eminent people” to conduct the inquiry – former NSW Department of Health director-general Robyn Kruk, Deakin University chair in epidemiology Professor Catherine Bennett, and health economist Dr Angela Jackson. They will be supported by a taskforce within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The inquiry will also hold public consultations across Australia with key community stakeholders, Commonwealth, state and territory government agencies, and members of the public.
A final report will be delivered to the government by the independent panel, including recommendations for the Commonwealth Government to improve Australia’s preparedness for future pandemics, by the end of September 2024.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been the most significant global crisis that we have faced in decades. Its impacts are still being felt throughout Australia,” Mr Albanese said on Thursday (21 September).
“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.”