On 8 April 2020, the Senate established the Select Committee on COVID-19 (committee) to scrutinise the Australian Government’s (government) health and economic response to COVID-19. The committee has broad terms of reference and is due to provide its final report by 30 June 2022.
This interim report sets out the committee’s initial findings with a focus on the government’s preparedness for a pandemic, the speed and efficacy of its health response, the economic response packages prior to the 2020–21 Budget, as well as the issues emerging from the initial phase of the pandemic including the aged care crisis and the lack of national co-ordination, governance and transparency of decision making.
The report does not focus on decisions taken by the states or territories as this falls outside of the terms of reference of this committee.
The establishment of the committee has allowed opposition and crossbench Senators to continue to engage constructively in the national interest to improve the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In publishing this report, the committee hopes that it can be used by the government to ensure that weaknesses in the initial phases of the response can be strengthened moving forward.
The report is principally based on evidence provided to the committee via 37 public hearings, 505 written submissions and answers to questions on notice provided by government departments, agencies and other witnesses.
Preparation and initial response
While Australia has avoided the worst of the potential health outcomes, as at
8 December 2020 there have been over 27 987 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Australia and 908 people have died. More could have been done to prevent illness and this tragic loss of life.
The government did not have adequate plans in place either before, or during the pandemic. Not only did it fail to heed warnings prior to COVID-19 about the National Medical Stockpile of personal protective equipment, there were inadequacies in its approach to pandemic planning exercises. In its COVID-19 Response Plan developed in February, the government did not contemplate the closure of international borders and failed to properly prepare the aged care and disability sectors for the pandemic.
In relation to international border measures, there was much more the government could have done to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The early travel restrictions on four high risk countries were not extended beyond China, Italy, Iran and Korea until 20 March, by which point case numbers had risen to over 60 000 in Europe (excluding Italy) and over 10 000 in the United States. The Ruby Princess debacle, which occurred despite ‘bespoke arrangements’ under the command of the Australian Border Force, saw hundreds of passengers with COVID-19 spread the virus across the country. Efforts to bring Australians stranded overseas home have been woefully inadequate throughout the pandemic—as at 24 November 2020 there were still over 35 000 Australians unable to get home.
The national health strategy was not explained clearly to the public until late July. Throughout most of March the Prime Minister appeared reluctant to fully embrace social distancing measures and confused the public with messages suggesting that things could carry on as normal. The lack of any clear strategy in this critical period ultimately saw New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria take the lead on a decision to go into a national lockdown.
Issues with the government's leadership of the health response persisted throughout the pandemic. The COVIDSafe app, which was supposed to be 'like sunscreen' and enable the states and territories to reopen, failed to meet its download target, suffered performance issues and to date has only identified 17 close contacts. Australia has lagged behind other countries in securing access to a vaccine and is yet to reassure the community it has a plan to deal with major logistical hurdles. Medical advice behind key decisions has been kept secret from the public and attempts by the committee to seek more information have been deliberately frustrated.
The government is responsible for significant failings in the aged care sector prior to, and during the pandemic. As at 9 October 2020, 683 Australians had died from COVID-19 in aged care facilities—accounting for 74.6 per cent of all deaths from COVID-19 in Australia. The pandemic exposed and exacerbated long-running problems in the sector. The government was unprepared; failing to anticipate crippling staff shortages and a high volume of requests for personal protective equipment (PPE). It failed to learn important lessons from early outbreaks at residential aged care facilities in NSW and was too slow to respond to escalating community transmission in Victoria. The Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission should have done more to keep residents safe.
The committee is disappointed that, rather than accept its mistakes in leading the health response and keeping aged care residents safe, the government has repeatedly sought to avoid taking responsibility and shift blame onto the states. The Prime Minister also created confusion and splintered federal cooperation by criticising state and territory decisions to close schools and impose domestic border restrictions.
In terms of the government's economic response, the JobKeeper initiative has been critical in staving off the worst-case scenario. However, the government's initial reluctance to embrace a large-scale wage subsidy meant it opted for an early access super scheme which will see $41.9 billion taken from the retirement savings of those workers who were the hardest hit by COVID-19. It did not conduct any analysis of the gendered impact of the pandemic, nor did the government consider gender impact in designing key measures like the early access super scheme and JobKeeper.
The ongoing uncertainty about the inadequate permanent rate of JobSeeker remains a handbrake on economic recovery and a source of unnecessary anxiety for the
1.5 million Australians relying on unemployment payments to survive. The government could have fixed this in the 2020–21 Budget but they chose not to.
Australia is now in a deep recession after entering 2020 with slow growth, falling business confidence and a prolonged period of stagnant wages. Economic forecasts paint a stark picture, with unemployment projected to remain above pre-pandemic levels throughout the forward estimates.
In this context, the economic recovery measures announced in the government's recent budget are not enough to create jobs and restore the Australian economy to full employment. To make matters worse, the government signalled its intention to pull back on economic stimulus measures and focus on fiscal discipline once unemployment falls below 6 per cent. The committee urges the government to adopt further measures aimed at job creation, including investment in social housing and reforms to childcare aimed at boosting economic participation.
To ensure Australia is better prepared for future outbreaks of COVID-19 or another pandemic, the committee makes the following recommendations.