Australian COVID-19 response management arrangements: a quick guide

28 APRIL 2020

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Karen Elphick
Law and Bills Digest Section

This is one of three Library publications that outline emergency and pandemic planning arrangements that were in place prior to 2020, and actual arrangements established in 2020 to coordinate the national response to COVID-19.

  1. National emergency and disaster response arrangements in Australia: a quick guide explains the overarching decision-making framework designed to manage crisis events of all kinds.
  2. Australian pandemic response planning: a quick guide outlines the standing health emergency plans that were in place prior to the advent of COVID-19 in 2020, including the National Pandemic Influenza Plan.
  3. Australian COVID-19 response management arrangements: a quick guide (this publication) explains the specific decision-making and advisory bodies involved in the national COVID-19 response, as at April 2020.

Table of Contents


Standing national health crisis management and response arrangements

Figure 1: whole-of-government, health sector, and health advisory committees involved in decision making for an influenza pandemic

Lead minister for response and recovery
Key considerations for response

Specific COVID-19 pandemic management and response arrangements

The COVID-19 health sector response plan

Table 1: Key activities in each of the COVID-19 Plan stages
Response plan activation

Health sector decision making and advisory bodies

Australian Health Protection Principal Committee
National Incident Room

Declaration of human biosecurity emergency

Whole-of-government decision making and advisory bodies

National Security Committee of Cabinet|
Council of Australian Governments (COAG)
The National Cabinet
National Crisis Committee
National Coordination Mechanism
Crisis Coordination Centre
National COVID-19 Coordination Commission

Australian Parliament


Each Australian state and territory has generic emergency and disaster response legislation which authorises officials to declare emergencies in a variety of circumstances and make orders to deal with an emergency. The Commonwealth does not have specific legislative power to deal with emergencies and has not enacted equivalent generic legislation.

Whole-of-government arrangements have been developed that are designed to be applicable in any emergency or crisis. These arrangements are described in the Parliamentary Library’s publication National Emergency and Disaster Response Arrangements in Australia: a Quick Guide. Within these arrangements are specific standing arrangements for dealing with public health crises including pandemics.

This Quick Guide explains these arrangements, setting out the decision-making and advisory bodies that implement the various crisis and pandemic plans. In each section, the Guide uses ‘Commonwealth government’ and ‘Australian government’ interchangeably while ‘national’ refers to Commonwealth, state and territory governments and agencies. Some bodies within the framework comprise elected political leaders (for example, Cabinet) and others comprise officials. Some of the actions and decisions taken by these bodies are given to illustrate their roles, but this Quick Guide is not a chronology of government action taken in response to COVID-19.

Standing national health crisis management and response arrangements

Australia has a series of standing health emergency plans, ordered from high level policy down to operational detail. The standing plans dealing specifically with pandemic response are described in the Parliamentary Library’s publication Australian Pandemic Response Planning: a Quick Guide. The main standing response plans for a pandemic are:

The planned response to a national public health crisis involves action by the whole-of-government in parallel to the health sector. The Australian Government Crisis Management Framework (December 2017) (AGCMF) identifies the planned decision making framework for response to, and recovery from, any crisis event. Annex A.7 to the AGCMF sets out the standing response arrangements for a public health crisis. These arrangements are illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: whole-of-government, health sector, and health advisory committees involved in decision making for an influenza pandemic

Source: Australian Health Management Plan for Pandemic Influenza–AHPPMI, (August 2019), p. 34.

The whole-of-government arrangements are to be applied to:

A domestic public health incident that requires a whole-of-government response. Examples may include an influenza pandemic or a serious infectious disease outbreak. (AGCMF p. 46)

While these are the standing arrangements, they are designed to be the starting point for any response, to be adjusted as required.

Lead minister for response and recovery

In a public health crisis the designated lead minister for response and recovery is the Minister for Health and the lead agency is the Department of Health. The designated lead senior official is the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) and the key whole-of-government coordination mechanisms are:

  • Australian Government Crisis Committee
  • National Crisis Committee
  • Australian Government Disaster Recovery Committee
  • Australian Cyber Security Centre

The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) is a key health sector coordination mechanism that provides advice to whole-of-government crisis committees.

The AGCMF anticipates a central role for the Prime Minister as the chief spokesperson in a significant national crisis and the involvement of other ministers as required, with the response coordinated from the Prime Minister’s Office (AGCMF, p. 14).

Key considerations for response

The key considerations for the Minister for Health in responding to the public health crisis are:

  • advising the Governor-General on the declaration of a human biosecurity emergency under Part 2, Chapter 8 of the Biosecurity Act 2015
  • determining requirements and issuing directions during a human biosecurity emergency
  • shaping the direction of response to a health incident of national significance, as necessary
  • implementing health measures, as appropriate
  • developing assistance packages to assist with recovery efforts, as required
  • seeking advice from the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources in the event of food-borne disease crises linked to imported food, as necessary.

The Minister for Home Affairs has the role of responding to requests from states and territories for Australian Government non- financial assistance under COMDISPLAN arrangements as required (in consultation with relevant ministers) (AGCMF, p. 46).

The Minister for Foreign Affairs has a role to coordinate reception of Australians and other approved persons into Australia where there is an overseas mass casualty event or an evacuation from overseas is otherwise necessary.

Specific COVID-19 pandemic management and response arrangements

On 21 January 2020 the CMO issued a determination adding ‘human coronavirus with pandemic potential’ to the Biosecurity (Listed Human Diseases) Determination 2016. This decision triggered the activation of the National Incident Room, the National Medical Stockpile, and the National Trauma Centre, daily meetings of the AHPPC, and meetings of state, territory and Commonwealth health ministers to discuss pandemic readiness.

The COVID-19 health sector response plan

The Australian Health Sector Emergency Response Plan for Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) (7 February 2020) (COVID-19 Plan) adapts the Pandemic Influenza Plan to specifically manage the national COVID-19 response. The COVID-19 Plan is intended to be a living document which will be periodically updated. The Plan is focussed on the Response phase and moves through Initial Action to Targeted Action and then to Standdown. The stages are summarised in Table 1.

Table 1: Key activities in each of the COVID-19 Plan stages




Initial (when information about the disease is scarce)

  • Minimise transmission
  • Prepare and support health system needs
  • Manage initial cases and contacts
  • Identify and characterise the nature of the disease within the Australian context
  • Provide information to support best practice health care and to empower the community and responders to manage their own risk of exposure and
  • Confirm and support effective governance arrangements

Targeted (when enough is known about the disease to tailor measures to specific needs)

  • Ensure a proportionate response
  • Support and maintain quality care
  • Communicate to engage, empower and build confidence in the community and
  • Provide a coordinated and consistent approach


  • Support and maintain quality care
  • Cease activities that are no longer needed, and transition activities to normal business or interim arrangements
  • Monitor for a second wave of the outbreak
  • Monitor for the development of resistance to any pharmaceutical measures (if being used)
  • Communicate to support the return from emergency response to normal business services and
  • Evaluate systems and revise plans and procedures.

Source: Australian Health Sector Emergency Response Plan for Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), pp. 2–3.

An official short form of the COVID-19 Plan (undated) has been published. Two operational plans for specific at-risk populations have also been developed by the Department of Health and endorsed by the AHPPC:

Response plan activation

At the request of the CMO, on 25 January 2020 the Australian Government activated the National CD Plan. The AHPPC endorsed the COVID-19 Plan sometime from 17-26 February 2020 (sources contain conflicting dates). The National Security Committee of Cabinet agreed and initiated implementation of the COVID-19 Plan on 27 February 2020.

There is a detailed table setting out the respective roles and responsibilities of the Australian Government, state and territory governments and the health sector during the Response stage in ‘Attachment I. Governance Table’ at pages 214–229 of the Pandemic Influenza Plan.

As part of the COVID-19 response, the Government announced on 11 March 2020 that  the supply of personal protective equipment and pharmaceuticals held in the National Medical Stockpile  would be increased at a cost of $1.1 billion.

Health sector decision making and advisory bodies

The COVID-19 Response Plan makes the Australian Department of Health responsible for national coordination of the health sector emergency response, under the direction of the AHPPC.

Australian Health Protection Principal Committee

The AHPPC is the key committee coordinating the Australian health sector response. It comprises all state and territory Chief Health Officers and is chaired by the CMO. More detail about the membership of the AHPPC can be found at pages 14–15 of the National CD Plan. The AHPPC is publishing frequent statements on Coronavirus (COVID-19) with advice on risk reduction measures, treatment protocols, and modelling, along with other information and advice.

The AHPPC also provides advice to whole-of-government bodies, the National Cabinet and the National Coordination Mechanism (their roles are discussed below).

National Incident Room

The National Incident Room is a 24/7 communication and coordination centre within the Department of Health activated in response to national health emergencies. It was activated on 21 January 2020 for the COVID-19 pandemic response. The main activities conducted in the National Incident Room include:

  • servicing the emergency meetings of the AHPPC, and other expert health committees
  • providing technical advice to committees and government
  • gathering information to assist health and whole-of-government response decisions
  • coordinating the deployment of the National Medical Stockpile
  • keeping the community informed of the health related aspects of the emergency through the media
  • implementing health aspects of Commonwealth disaster plans
  • coordinating medical response teams domestically and internationally
  • liaison with emergency management sectors in other Commonwealth and state/territory government agencies.

Declaration of human biosecurity emergency

On 18 March 2020 the Governor-General declared, pursuant to section 475 of the Biosecurity Act 2015, that a human biosecurity emergency exists because human coronavirus with pandemic potential is an infectious disease:

  • that has entered Australian territory and
  • that is fatal in some cases and
  • that there was no vaccine against, or antiviral treatment for, immediately before the commencement of this instrument and
  • that is posing a severe and immediate threat to human health on a nationally significant scale.[1]

The declaration is in force for three months.

In a human biosecurity emergency, the Health Minister has wide-ranging powers under the Biosecurity Act to issue directives and requirements. The Parliamentary Library has published an explainer on how these powers work and how they have been used.

Whole-of-government decision making and advisory bodies

On 1 February 2020, the Prime Minister, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister for Home Affairs and the Minister for Health issued a joint media release advising that the National Security Committee of Cabinet (NSC) had decided, based on health advice from the CMO and AHPPC, to introduce strict travel restrictions on the entry to Australia of foreign nationals who were, on that date, in mainland China. Self-isolation measures were also introduced and travel warnings upgraded. Whole-of-government responses agreed during February 2020 included:

National Security Committee of Cabinet

The National Security Committee of Cabinet (NSC) is a committee of the Australian Government Cabinet. It considers major foreign policy and national security issues of strategic importance to Australia, border protection policy, national responses to developing foreign policy and security situations. Decisions of the NSC do not require the endorsement of the Cabinet.

The NSC continued to meet and agree to further responses to the pandemic throughout February. On 5 March 2020, the Prime Minister, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Health issued a joint media release advising that the National Security Committee of Cabinet had activated the National Coordination Mechanism (NCM) (discussed below) on 5 March 2020 in response to the spread of COVID-19.

Council of Australian Governments (COAG)

The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) is the peak intergovernmental forum in Australia. Its role is to manage matters of national significance or matters that need co-ordinated action by all Australian governments. The members of COAG are the Prime Minister, state and territory First Ministers and the President of the Australian Local Government Association. COAG is chaired by the Prime Minister.

COAG held its 48th general meeting in Sydney on 13 March 2020. The Communique from that meeting summarised national action in response to the COVID-19 outbreak to date and noted:

COAG agreed to commission real-time, transparent protocols, underpinned by advice from the AHPPC and working through the National Coordination Mechanism, to support a consistent approach to containment and preparedness for coronavirus. These protocols will include management of mass gatherings, school closures, health management in remote communities and public transport, with decisions on applying the protocols resting with states and territories. COAG further agreed that the AHPPC advice will have the status of COAG advice, and to implement and follow the advice, as necessary.

While coronavirus is first and foremost a health crisis, it is having significant economic impacts... All Australian governments will play their part in delivering complementary, targeted and proportionate responses to the economic impacts of coronavirus. Leaders noted presentations from the Governor of the Reserve Bank and the Secretary of the Australian Treasury, and accepted advice that current fiscal settings in jurisdictions should be adjusted to mitigate the economic impact on Australians and best position the nation for recovery.

COAG also published the National Partnership on COVID-19 Response, an intergovernmental agreement under which the Commonwealth Government will provide financial assistance to the states and territories for the additional costs incurred by state health services in responding to the COVID-19 outbreak. The agreement states in part:

In entering this Agreement, the Commonwealth and the States and Territories (the States) recognise that they have a joint responsibility to act to protect the Australian community by ensuring that the health system can respond effectively to the outbreak of Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19).

The Commonwealth and States commit to working together to respond to the outbreak of COVID-19 and minimise the risk to the people of Australia and keep the community safe, in line with existing government responsibilities for the health system.

The Commonwealth and States will respond to the outbreak through the Australian Health Sector Emergency Response Plan for Novel Coronavirus [COVID-19 Response Plan], the broader healthcare sector and existing mechanisms including the National Health Reform Agreement, as amended by the 2017 Addendum of the NHRA and the 2020-21 to 2024-25 Addendum to the NHRA once in operation.

The National Cabinet

The Prime Minister initiated a new body called the National Cabinet to coordinate action between the Australian and state governments for the COVID-19 response. The National Cabinet held its first meeting on 15 March 2020. At that meeting it agreed to adopt the advice of the AHPPC and implement the first social distancing measures across Australia.

The National Cabinet has continued to meet and discuss policy responses and coordinate national action. The National Cabinet does not issue minutes or communiques; however, the Prime Minister usually briefs the media on outcomes shortly after the meeting.

While the necessity for a National Cabinet instead of the existing COAG framework has not been explained by the Government, it is likely that the National Cabinet is a more responsive and flexible policy discussion body than the formal intergovernmental collaboration body (with its own Councils and secretariat) which COAG has become over time. COAG usually meets only twice a year, though it is able to meet when needed, and settles issues out-of-session by correspondence.

The National Cabinet appears to have the same membership as COAG except that the President of the Australian Local Government Association is not included. Although named a ‘cabinet’, it is an intergovernmental forum. Prime Minister Morrison stated at a press conference in Sydney on 15 March 2020:

I want to thank the premiers and the chief ministers for their support in bringing together this national cabinet. It has now been established formally under the Commonwealth government's cabinet guidelines. And it has the status of a meeting of Cabinet that would exist at a federal level, as does the meetings of the AHPPC and the national coordinating mechanism, which is feeding up into those arrangements.

It is likely that the Prime Minister was referring to the Cabinet Handbook which sets out administrative and record-keeping requirements and processes. For example, section one identifies the roles of the Cabinet Secretary and Cabinet Division; section three identifies processes including circulation of minutes; and section six deals with the security and handling of cabinet documents. Section two contains Cabinet conventions and principles, most of which could have no application to an intergovernmental forum composed of First Ministers of independent governments rather than Commonwealth ministers.

National Crisis Committee

The National Crisis Committee (NCC) is the key national, cross-government committee of officials identified in standing response plans. It will consolidate information and coordinate information exchange and advice to ministers. It will also coordinate ministerial decisions across the Australian Government, state and territory and local governments. The NCC membership includes Australian Government Crisis Committee standing members; state and territory agency representatives as appropriate to the event; and state and territory representatives from the departments of Premier and Cabinet (and equivalents). The Australian Government Crisis Committee is an exclusively Commonwealth government interagency coordination committee.

The Pandemic Influenza Plan designates the National Crisis Committee (NCC) as the primary national cross-government forum for coordinating the whole-of-government response to pandemic influenza.

National Coordination Mechanism

The NCM is not mentioned in any of the available response plans. The role of the NCM appears to be very similar to that envisaged for the NCC. A 2013 Cabinet document briefing incoming ministers on their responsibilities addressed emergency arrangements; at page 33 the document refers to the NCC as the National coordination mechanism (in contrast to the Australian Government Crisis Committee which is the Australian Government coordination mechanism). It is likely that the National Crisis Committee has been renamed.

The NCM will coordinate engagement through individual forums with individual sectors, such as education, public safety and policing, banking, transport, food, and agriculture. It will operate through the Department of Home Affairs and, together with the states and territories, will coordinate the whole-of-government responses to issues outside the direct health management of COVID-19. The NCM has already brought together crisis planners from Australian Government agencies, including Home Affairs and the Australian Defence Force.

Crisis Coordination Centre

The key national operational level, whole-of-government coordination body is the Crisis Coordination Centre (CCC). This is a 24/7 centre providing whole-of-government situational awareness to inform national decision making during a crisis. The Crisis Coordination Centre is run by the Emergency Management Australia Division (EMA) within the Security and Resilience Group of the Department of Home Affairs. It monitors open source as well as social media to gain an appreciation of rapidly developing events.

Requests for Commonwealth non-financial assistance (including requests for Australian Defence Force assistance) are coordinated through the CCC.

National COVID-19 Coordination Commission

On 25 March 2020 the Prime Minister announced the formation of a new advisory body – the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) – to be based in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and composed of leaders from the profit and non-profit sectors. The NCCC Executive Board of Commissioners are Neville Power (Chair), David Thodey (Deputy Chair), Greg Combet, Jane Halton, Paul Little, Catherine Tanna, and the Secretaries of the Departments of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Philip Gaetjens and of Home Affairs, Mike Pezzullo.

The function of the NCCC is to ‘coordinate advice to the Australian Government on actions to anticipate and mitigate the economic and social effects of the ... pandemic’. The NCCC:

... is about mobilising a whole-of-society and whole-of economy effort so we come through this unprecedented health crisis. The Commission will assist the Government to ensure all resources are marshalled to this vital task in a coordinated and effective manner.

The NCCC supports the decision-making committees managing the crisis including the National Cabinet, the National Security Committee of Cabinet and the Expenditure Review Committee of Cabinet. The NCCC will work in tandem with the CMO. Both the NCM (based in the Department of Home Affairs) and the Coronavirus Business Liaison Unit (based in the Treasury Department) report to the NCCC.

The NCCC appears to be fulfilling at least some of the functions of an Australian Government Disaster Recovery Committee and may be the specific manifestation of that committee for the COVID-19 response.

Australian Parliament

While many of the initial responses to the COVID-19 pandemic were executive actions or implemented by state and territory legislation, Commonwealth legislation was required to implement planned Government spending measures.

On 23 March 2020, the Australian Parliament (with attendance of members reduced by agreement between the Government and Opposition), met briefly to pass the Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus Bill 2020. Parliament met again for one day on 8 April 2020, again with attendance reduced by agreement, to pass the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Bill 2020, the Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus (Measures No. 2) Bill 2020, Appropriation Bill (No. 5) 2019-2020 and Appropriation Bill (No. 6) 2019-2020.

[1].   Biosecurity (Human Biosecurity Emergency) (Human Coronavirus with Pandemic Potential) Declaration 2020.


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