The Department of Health first became aware of undiagnosed pneumonia in the People's Republic of China on 31 December 2019. On 25 January 2020, the first case of COVID-19 was detected in Australia. Eight weeks later on 18 March, the Governor-General declared a human biosecurity emergency under the Biosecurity Act 2015.
To respond to the threat posed by the virus and limit its spread, the Commonwealth, state and territory governments implemented a range of extraordinary health and economic responses, including unprecedented restrictions to enforce social distancing, border control measures, and high levels of government spending.
From March 2020, the pandemic fundamentally changed our way of life. For its part, the Parliament accepted the need for swift and serious action and worked across party lines. While the opposition and crossbench expressed concerns about certain aspects of the Australian Government's
(government) response, all members of parliament and Senators recognised the need to facilitate the passage of key government legislation aimed at supporting Australians during the crisis.
The Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus Bill 2020 (package) was introduced to Parliament on 23 March 2020. The package gave legislative effect to the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including its economic response, as announced between 12 and 22 March. The package focused on four key areas: targeted payments to households; cash flow assistance to small and medium sized businesses; investment support through an increase to the instant asset write off; and support for regions and communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
A third package announced on 30 March established a new wage subsidy in the form of 'JobKeeper', which provided a $1500 fortnightly wage subsidy to eligible employees of businesses that could demonstrate a sufficient decline in revenue during the pandemic.
The government's fiscal support announced in March equated to $194 billion across the forward estimates, representing 10 per cent of annual GDP. Provisions of the bill provided the Minister for Families and Social Services with the broad discretion to extend the coronavirus supplement to other income support payments by legislative instrument.
COVID-19 cases in Australia
As of 8 December 2020, there have been 27 987 cases of COVID-19 in Australia, of which 25 450 individuals have recovered. To date, 908 people have died from COVID-19 in Australia, of which three-quarters have been from aged care facilities.
The scrutiny role of the committee
The Parliament met for a single day on 23 March to consider the government's economic response to the pandemic. Due to concerns that further meetings would risk spreading the virus, the Parliament agreed through the two chambers to substantially reduce the number of planned sittings. The Senate suspended its schedule of sittings until 11 August 2020, but each House agreed to resolutions providing flexibility for them to meet before then if required.
In the absence of a regular parliamentary sitting schedule, on 8 April the Senate established the Select Committee on COVID-19 (committee) with extremely broad terms of reference: 'the Australian Government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic and any related matters'.
With Parliament not expected to meet for another four months, the committee was established so that it could discharge the parliamentary oversight that Parliament itself was not able to carry out via regular means.
There was no opposition to the Senate resolution establishing the committee. The government said it welcomed this oversight of its decisions.
At the first public hearing, the Chair, Senator Katy Gallagher, observed that the committee 'is not your typical Senate committee'. She explained:
This committee is a key vehicle to provide accountability, transparency and scrutiny of the Australian Government's response to the pandemic for the Australian people. Over the next  months we will work tirelessly to shine a light on every aspect of the national response.
Throughout its inquiry, the committee will look back to scrutinise the programs and policies that have already been implemented by government. It will also look ahead to short and long-term risks and opportunities for Australia's economic recovery and management of the pandemic.
Purpose of this report
This interim report sets out the committee's early findings on the government's response to COVID-19.
This report focuses on some of the major issues arising from the first eight months of COVID-19 in Australia. It is not intended to provide an exhaustive examination of the many issues raised with the committee in written submissions, correspondence and hearings. The committee may choose to revisit some of these issues and report on them in greater detail throughout the inquiry period.
The committee's oversight work is not limited to its reports. The committee has also held a substantial number of public hearings and accepted a large body of written evidence from government and the community.
Conduct of the inquiry
The committee is due to present its final report by 30 June 2022, but also intends to present interim reports like this one over the course of its inquiry. The pace and nature of the inquiry will reflect the evolution of the pandemic and the government's response. The committee's intentions for the future of its inquiry are discussed further in Chapter 8.
The committee has held 37 public hearings and one private hearing thus far. While videoconferencing was used at every hearing, each one was based in Canberra with appropriate physical distancing and other COVID safe measures observed. The dates of the hearings and witnesses who gave evidence at each public hearing are listed in Appendix 2.
The committee called for written submissions to be lodged by 28 May 2020. After continuing to receive a great deal of interest from the public, the committee decided to formally re-open the submission period. As at
9 December 2020, the committee has accepted 505 written submissions. All published submissions are available on the committee's webpage. This is in addition to:
558 published documents containing more than 1800 answers to questions on notice;
124 other published documents including tabled documents, correspondence and additional documents;
two separate form letters received from 1700 individuals and 117 individuals respectively; and
hundreds of pieces of correspondence.
The committee thanks all those who have provided evidence to the inquiry. In particular, the committee acknowledges the substantial efforts of public servants to assist the committee and appear at hearings, often at short notice, amidst high pressures and large workloads.
More broadly, the committee recognises all those who have come together in the face of this pandemic. Doctors, nurses and other medical staff have dedicated themselves to treating Australians under immense pressures. Public servants have worked hard to develop and deliver critical supports like JobSeeker and JobKeeper. Employers and employees, businesses and unions, teachers, cleaners, aged care workers, supermarket staff, delivery drivers, and so many other members of our community have worked together—often in very difficult circumstances—to keep our community safe whilst maintaining essential services.
The committee also acknowledges that as COVID-19 first spread, our country was already weathering another crisis. The 2019–20 summer saw bushfires devastate our environment, damage livelihoods, and, most regrettably, take the lives of fellow Australians.
While Australia has fared better than many other parts of the world so far, the COVID-19 pandemic is not over. The committee will continue to scrutinise the government's response to the pandemic and encourage a strong recovery that is fair, inclusive and does not leave people behind.