24 March 2022

Secretive ACT Health has betrayed the public's trust

| Ian Bushnell
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ACT Chief Health Officer Dr Kerryn Coleman. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Why should the people of Canberra, regularly touted as the most educated and sophisticated in the land, be denied information about what has been until recently a singular issue for the nation over the past couple of years?

The Freedom of Information release of email documents this week confirms what many in the media have suspected, that despite enormous goodwill during the COVID-19 public health emergency, ACT Health was keeping people in the dark about vaccine status, comorbidities and deaths in palliative care, especially during the Omicron wave.

ACT Health has not only withheld information made available in other jurisdictions but obfuscated about why, saying at first that it did not routinely collect the data.

READ MORE Minister defends Health’s alleged ‘culture of secrecy’, says COVID-death comorbidities kept quiet for ‘privacy’ reasons

But emails reveal that ACT Health did not want to provide the information as a matter of course because it didn’t trust Canberrans to understand the data, didn’t want people to get the wrong impression or draw simple conclusions about what were complex situations.

Even Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith admitted there were “robust conversations” – the usual euphemism for an internal brawl – between her office and ACT Health about releasing some information to the public.

Despite an acknowledgement that the information was important to the whole picture of the pandemic in the ACT, ACT Health, including Chief Health Office Dr Kerryn Coleman, regularly fudged answers to media questions or reeled off excuses.

Under fire from the Opposition, which has had to take stick during the pandemic for being too critical and undermining the trust Canberrans should have in the health authorities, Ms Stephen-Smith retreated to the last redoubt – the ACT’s absurdly strict privacy laws that regularly stymie journalists trying to do their job and keep basic information out of the public arena.

Despite the information being ‘deidentified’, Canberra’s small population means people might be able to work out who was in ICU or who had died, she says, as if that’s what busy people do around the water cooler or kitchen table.

Those already close to the situation would know anyway.

READ ALSO Barr promises pay and super increases, more flexible conditions for ACT public servants

The context needs to be remembered: a Territory where public health orders restricted gatherings, travel, compelled mask-wearing and check-ins, and mandated vaccination for some, amid campaigns for double-dose vaccination and then booster shots for protection.

The vaccination status of victims, information that media had to request, is an essential part of this overall picture, as is the age and setting where people are falling ill and dying.

But it seems that information that might cause people to question the public health measures was considered too sensitive to release.

When a government needs to restrict liberty to maintain public health, the trade-off should be that its citizenry is kept informed.

READ ALSO Why are so many Canberrans looking for a new job right now?

It is not for bureaucrats and politicians to enlist that trust and then treat citizens as children or to fret about potential blowback and having to be accountable for their decisions.

They should not hide behind privacy rules, and public servants should not fear they are breaking the law to provide information the public wants and should know.

The Barr Government talks about transparency, but this episode reveals a health bureaucracy that does not trust its own minister or the people of Canberra it serves.

It shows that at the Health Directorate, for all the controversies and reviews of recent times, the reform work is not done yet.

A review of the ACT’s privacy legislation should also ensure it is not a screen for secretive governments or public servants.

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You must do what the ACT government tells you to do. They would never hide or keep information from you. Everything they do is always in your best interests.
Do not question them or you will be banned from society.

HiddenDragon6:32 pm 26 Mar 22

Favoured groups aside, when you look through the spin, bureaucratese and fake consultation, the attitude of the ACT public sector to the broader public could generally be summarised as “shut up, pay up, and do what you’re told”.

The issues outlined in this article are just another illustration of that attitude, but to the extent that the local media has been provoked to a heightened level of wariness about what they’re being told by official sources, then some good might come of this.

Well said. The other problem of course is the public needs to be informed to give informed consent. After scouring the internet, I spent an hour yesterday being shuffled around ACT Government Covid lines trying to get answers so I could give informed consent for my booster shot. Not a single person could help, and the questions weren’t that hard.

A government in power for over 20 years, where shining seats with their derrières is more important than governing

Stephen Saunders3:36 pm 25 Mar 22

What they tell you: Cases, severity, deaths. What they leave out or play down: Average and trend, age, sex, vaxx status, variant, suburb of residence, location of infection if known, co-morbidities, and so forth.

Obviously, this is to protect the minister, not the people.

Knowing how things work in the government I would say the “robust conversations” between the Ministers office and ACT Health about releasing some information to the public was about the Ministers Office wanting to restrict the information. There is little benefit to the bureaucracy. Canberra is a small place and people talk. Governments tend to control information to their advantage, this would include trying to limit concern in the Canberra population that their COVID strategies were not fool proof. If someone knows the truth prove me wrong. Barr’s City Council has form.

Petra Bouvain9:41 am 25 Mar 22

Important information, it will influence behaviour… wearing a mask or not? Going to a crowded venue or not. Knowing what age group, vacvcinated or not, boostere with what type of pre conditions are in ICU are important facts to know. If the data is complex it is the role of the government to make them easy to understand, Maybe the problem is that the government spokespeople have great communication skill but may lack higher stats skills…let’s get experts then to explain those stats to us simple people. Simples as the Meercats say.

A bit rough given the amount of trust we handed over to the Government. At a a time when handing over personal information became a requirement for entering a premises, you’d think they’d at least trust us enough to share this information.

Government transparency and accountability much?

Disgraceful. Heads should roll.

The government was quite happy to invade the privacy of average citizens during that time.

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