December 4, 2023

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Australia’s Covid inquiry must not morph into chance to ‘retell history’, health experts warn | Health

Key medical figures at the forefront of Australia’s Covid response have urged the federal inquiry into the virus to deeply investigate how governments set policies on vaccines, border closures and hospital preparations.

Dr Nick Coatsworth, Australia’s former deputy chief medical officer, said an examination of vaccine safety reporting was important for public confidence in the future. Dr Omar Khorshid, a former president of the Australian Medical Association, said the health response to Covid should be seen as a “national triumph” and the federal government’s independent inquiry must not morph into an opportunity to “retell history”.

“There’s a view out there we overreacted to the pandemic, but it forgets the realities on the ground at the time,” Khorshid said.

“We need to look at the totality of our responses: state and federal governments, primary care, preparation of our hospitals, border responses. All of these provide us with opportunity to learn, because there will be a next time.”

Robyn Kruk, a former director general of the New South Wales health department, will chair the inquiry alongside the panel members Prof Catherine Bennett, an epidemiologist, and Dr Angela Jackson, a health economist.

The inquiry’s website says it will “give advice on what worked, what didn’t, and what we can do in the future”, including “opportunities for systems to more effectively anticipate, adapt and respond to pandemics”.

Despite controversy erupting over the terms of reference stating that “actions taken unilaterally by state and territory governments” were not in the inquiry’s scope, Kruk told Guardian Australia that the terms were broad enough for panel members to examine state and territory responses – including lockdowns.

The federal health minister, Mark Butler, on Tuesday defended the terms of reference, saying it would be “extraordinary” if the inquiry didn’t examine public health and social measures implemented by states including lockdowns, social distancing rules and school closures. But Khorshid, who led the AMA during the peak of the pandemic, said he was “quite concerned” the terms would not allow necessary scrutiny of state actions.

“I don’t blame the state governments, on the whole they did an excellent job, but we need to reflect on that and not let people completely retell history through the pandemic,” Khorshid said.

“We should remember how many lives were saved through the extraordinary work from police, border guards, hospitals, vaccination clinics. It was a national triumph and we should be very proud … but we need to learn and do better.

“If we can avoid [future] disruptions to business, schools, people’s lives, that would be a strong move forward.”

Coatsworth, one of the government’s most prominent public faces during the pandemic’s early stages, noted there had been numerous inquiries into pandemic-era decisions, including vaccine procurement and Victoria’s hotel quarantine system – but said “there remain significant elements of the policy response that are yet to be comprehensively examined”.

“As an example, the performance of vaccine safety reporting mechanisms during a mass rollout deserves scrutiny to ensure public confidence for the future,” he told Guardian Australia.

The Australian Council of Social Services will use the inquiry to make the case for increased welfare payments and criticise the “premature” ending of a Covid-era supplement that doubled unemployment payments. The Acoss chief executive, Cassandra Goldie, said the investigation would “shed light on how lifting income support payments is highly effective at reducing poverty”.

“Temporarily doubling the JobSeeker rate in 2020 pulled 646,000 people – including 245,000 children – out of poverty and reduced the poverty rate to a 17-year-low of 12%,” she said.

“There must be scrutiny on the premature winding back of the Coronavirus Supplement in April 2021 – and the decision to exclude people on the lowest income-support payments from the Covid disaster payment. These decisions threw people back into financial distress.”

Goldie also noted the role of services for community health, homelessness, food relief and family violence through the pandemic, again urging the federal government to invest more in the community sector “to make sure we are prepared for future crises”.

The Coalition’s health spokesperson, Anne Ruston, has accused the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, of having “concocted a disingenuous quasi-inquiry”, after officials told a Senate estimates hearing the process was being run out of the prime minister’s department, rather than the health department.

Health officials told the hearing that while their department had supplied comments on the draft terms of reference and panel members, those details were not decided by them – with the scope decided by the Department of Prime Minster and Cabinet.

The finance minister, Katy Gallagher, said during estimates it was appropriate for PM&C to lead the inquiry “because there was a whole range of matters around Covid-19 … Health was a significant part of it, but, as we all know, there was a whole area of cross-government that was engaged on responding to the pandemic.”

Ruston said she was concerned about “an exclusive, invitation-based submission process”, and called for the removal of the exemption of unilateral state actions from the terms of reference.

“Australians deserve a genuine and thorough investigation of Covid-19, so we can be best prepared for any future pandemics,” she said. “But it has been clear from the outset that this is a merely a political inquiry, concocted by the prime minister as a distraction from his shambolic handling of current issues.”