Preparation and initial response
Interim finding 2.1
The Australian Government should have responded to COVID-19 with greater urgency in January 2020 and begun preparations for a possible pandemic.
Interim finding 2.2
Pandemic planning pre-COVID-19 was not adequate.
Australia’s planning for a pandemic had assumed an influenza-type virus. This left us unprepared when that wasn't the case.
The Australian Government’s initial COVID-19 response plan adopted in February contained key gaps, including failures to contemplate the closure of international borders, and neglect of the aged care and disability sectors.
Interim finding 2.3
The Australian Government failed to act on warnings regarding the inadequacy of its National Medical Stockpile prior to the bushfires and the pandemic.
Interim finding 2.4
The Australian Government should have acted earlier and with more consistency on decisions to extend travel restrictions and impose strict quarantine measures on international arrivals.
It is unclear which level of government was responsible for compliance with home quarantine arrangements for returning travellers between 1 February and 28 March—when compulsory hotel quarantine arrangements were mandated. There were no compliance checks taken throughout this time.
Interim finding 2.5
As at 24 November, there are 36 875 Australians registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as being stranded overseas and wishing to come home to Australia.
The Australian Government should have been putting in place plans for Australians stranded overseas to return home after international borders were closed in March.
The Australian Government knew of the escalating crisis for Australians overseas and did not adequately prepare or plan for their safe return.
There remain a number of options that the Australian Government could utilise—including expanding commonwealth-funded quarantine facilities, chartering flights or using the Royal Australian Air Force fleet—to assist stranded Australians in getting home.
Interim finding 2.6
The Ruby Princess outbreak occurred following the Prime Minister announcing arriving cruise ships would be ‘directly under the command of the Australian Border Force’ with ‘bespoke arrangements’ in place.
The Australian Government did not follow its legislated responsibilities on human quarantine.
The Australian Government did not follow its legislated responsibilities on human biosecurity, with officials from the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment failing to administer Traveller with Illness Checklists and follow other key protocols designed to identify and manage active cases of COVID-19.
The Australian Government is still unable to identify which Australian Government official granted pratique for passengers to disembark the Ruby Princess on 19 March 2020.
Health Response Part I: Managing COVID-19 in Australia
Interim finding 3.1
The Australian Government’s overarching strategy to deal with COVID-19 was not explained clearly to the public until late July—more than four months after strict sanctions were placed on the way Australians lived their lives.
The lack of a clear strategy on how to respond to COVID-19 in Australia affected early decision making by the Australian Government which ultimately saw the states and territories, in particular NSW and Victoria, take charge and force the national lockdown on 30 March.
Interim finding 3.2
The $5.24 million COVIDSafe app has significantly under-delivered on the Prime Minister’s promise that the app would enable an opening up of the economy in a COVID safe manner.
The app was launched with significant performance issues and has only been of limited effectiveness in its primary function of contact-tracing.
Interim finding 3.3
The government has lagged in securing vaccine deals and needs to do more to catch up. It also overstated its progress towards securing a vaccine in August when it prematurely announced a deal with the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca.
Health Response Part II: Aged Care
Interim finding 4.1
The aged care sector experienced a COVID-19 crisis which resulted in unacceptably poor outcomes, including tragic and preventable deaths.
The Australian Government failed to accept full responsibility for the aged care crisis, despite being the primary source of funding and the principal regulator of the sector. The crisis had catastrophic consequences for many elderly Australians and their families.
Interim finding 4.2
Australia’s aged care system was in crisis before the pandemic arrived.
Lack of access to health care staff, inadequate staffing levels, and lack of access to PPE and infection control training were all problems that predated COVID-19 and that had been outlined to the government in various reports over several years including in the 2019 Aged Care Royal Commission report titled Neglect.
The Australian Government failed to develop a COVID-19 plan for the sector, which was unprepared and ill-equipped to protect the safety of residents when the pandemic hit.
The committee does not accept the argument put to it by the Minister and senior officials that once community transmission of COVID-19 occurs, outbreaks and deaths in aged care are inevitable.
Interim finding 4.3
The committee does not accept claims by the government that it was unable to anticipate the situation which occurred at St Basil's Home for the Aged and other Victorian aged care facilities.
The government failed to learn from earlier outbreaks at aged care facilities in NSW, particularly in relation to surge staffing capacity, PPE and infection control.
Interim finding 4.4
The Australian Government failed to respond quickly enough to protect elderly Australians living in aged care facilities.
The Victorian Aged Care Response Centre should have been stood up before 25 July when there were already 294 infections and 26 deaths.
A more urgent response from the government could have prevented the significant loss of the lives of elderly Australians.
Interim finding 4.5
The Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission (ACQSC) failed to use all available regulatory powers to ensure the safety of aged care residents.
The ACQSC placed too much reliance on self-assessment surveys by aged care service providers to gauge the sector’s preparedness for keeping elderly Australians safe.
ACQSC assessors perform essential work and should not have suspended all unannounced visits during the pandemic.
Economic Response Part I: The immediate economic fallout and response
Interim finding 5.1
The Australian Government’s reluctance and delay in adopting a large-scale wage subsidy distorted the design of its economic packages.
The Australian Government’s decision to rely on the retirement savings system for economic stimulus will have long term consequences for millions of Australians.
Interim finding 5.2
The Australian Government designed JobKeeper in a way which unnecessarily and deliberately excluded over one million Australian workers from the scheme.
The Australian Government should have expanded JobKeeper eligibility to include more Australian workers when the $60 billion costing error was identified.
If JobKeeper had been designed to include more Australian workers, more jobs could have been saved.
Interim finding 5.3
The rate of JobSeeker is inadequate at $40 per day.
The committee is concerned that the Australian Government is withdrawing fiscal support too early in the recovery phase by reducing the Coronavirus Supplement at the end of September 2020 and again in January 2021, and that this will have negative consequences for the economy.
Interim finding 5.4
The Australian Government should have undertaken analysis of the gendered impact of the decisions it made when responding to the pandemic. This would have improved information available to decision makers and ensured that specific impacts were considered before finalising fiscal or policy measures.
Interim finding 5.5
In the first six months of the pandemic, the Australian economy was supported by the private savings of the people who were hit hardest by COVID-19 restrictions.
The early access superannuation scheme is Australia’s largest economic response to the pandemic after JobKeeper. More than 2.7 million Australians have accessed the scheme and Treasury estimates $41.9 billion will have been withdrawn from superannuation accounts by December 2020. This will cost Australia’s retirement income system more than $100 billion over the long term.
Interim finding 5.6
The Australian Government refused to put in place a paid pandemic leave scheme at the earliest opportunity in order to protect workers and protect lives.
The Australian Government only acted following the aged care crisis and in response to a concerted public campaign and significant evidence that low paid workers were continuing to attend work despite being unwell.
Economic Response Part II: The recession and the Australian jobs crisis
Interim finding 6.1
Economic forecasts over the forward estimates paint a grim economic reality for the years ahead. The Australian economy was weak prior to COVID-19, and recovery from the recession will take a long time.
The economy cannot afford for the Australian Government to prematurely withdraw fiscal stimulus measures and jeopardise the recovery.
Interim finding 6.2
In the six months since it was first announced, the Prime Minister’s ‘JobMaker Plan’ has promised much but delivered little.
Two major initiatives under the JobMaker brand—HomeBuilder and the Hiring Credit—significantly overstated the likely job creation impact.
Interim finding 6.3
The Australian Government’s JobMaker plan should have included investment in social housing and reforms to childcare to promote jobs and economic recovery.
The Australian Government should consider these and other opportunities to get Australia back to full employment, including new policies to promote onshore manufacturing capability and renewable energy as sources of job creation.
National Governance, Coordination and Communication
Interim finding 7.1
Despite claiming the protection of cabinet processes, the National Cabinet has not functioned in accordance with longstanding Westminster conventions on cabinet government in relation to collective responsibility and solidarity.
The Prime Minister’s public criticisms of certain state premiers’ decisions (school closures and internal border measures) fractured the national response and created unnecessary public confusion and anxiety.
The Australian Government has improperly applied cabinet conventions to avoid transparency in relation to decisions made by the National Cabinet.
Interim finding 7.2
The $6.5 million National COVID-19 Commission Advisory Board (NCCAB) lacks transparency, has access to cabinet documents without commensurate accountability, has not released any work publicly, and has failed to demonstrate how conflicts of interest are managed for commissioners.