In examining the first eight months of 2020, the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 (committee) considers the question: could the Australian Government (government) have done better in its response to COVID-19 to safeguard the lives and livelihoods of Australians, and how?
The committee is firmly of the view that more should have been done.
In coordinating the national health response, at times the government made mistakes in failing to act with enough urgency, providing unclear and inconsistent messaging, refusing to accept timely responsibility for vulnerable sectors of the community, and attempting to avoid transparency over important decision-making processes.
The government's response to the economic fallout of the pandemic was held back by an initial reluctance to adopt a large-scale wage subsidy. This reluctance saw the government use the retirement savings of Australians hardest hit by the pandemic to fund $41.9 billion in economic stimulus through the early access super scheme. A lack of any gender analysis on key policy measures meant that women—who had been disproportionately affected by the pandemic—were left behind by the response.
Importantly, there is still immediate action that the government needs to take with respect to both its health and economic response to the pandemic, which would have a measurable impact on the lives and livelihoods of Australians.
On the vaccine front, much more needs to be done to secure early access to a diverse range of vaccine candidates. We cannot afford to continue to lag other countries in this regard. Significant unresolved logistical challenges in how vaccines will be manufactured and distributed must also be addressed with the greatest possible urgency.
In the aged care sector, the government needs to quickly implement recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety's Special Report on COVID-19 and demonstrate that it has learned from the tragic outcomes of its management of the sector so far.
The committee will continue to focus on the aged care sector in future hearings and, if necessary, will consider the option of a dedicated report on the government's approach to preparing, regulating and supporting residential aged care facilities prior to and during the pandemic.
On the economic front, much more needs to be done to protect and create Australian jobs. Australia's economy was underperforming prior to the pandemic and is now in a deep recession, with economic forecasts suggesting that even with the latest round of budget measures the recovery will be painfully slow. The government should consider adopting a range of new measures including reforms to childcare subsidies and investment in social housing.
Future direction of the inquiry
The committee has already held 37 public hearings, many of which called on government witnesses. They have enabled relatively contemporaneous scrutiny of the government's response and served as an important source of information for the public during uncertain times. For the longer term, the hearings are also contributing to a substantial body of evidence that the committee can draw upon in future reports.
The committee is due to present its final report on or before 30 June 2022, which provides a substantial period for inquiry. The committee will not wait until mid-2022 to produce further reports and recommendations; it intends to inquire into and scrutinise the government's response throughout this period. Of course, public hearings held in the interim will also gather important evidence from the community and hold the government to account.
While this chapter provides an indication of how the committee intends to conduct this inquiry, it is not determinative. It is important to recognise that the committee is only eight months into a 27-month inquiry, and that the pandemic has the potential to change suddenly and significantly. The pace and nature of the inquiry will reflect the course of the pandemic and the government's response.
Senator Katy Gallagher