A COVID inquiry is needed, but a royal commission may not be the answer

The pandemic may not be “over”, strictly speaking, but for most of us, it’s fair to say the worst of COVID-19’s intrusions into our daily lives are now in the rear-view mirror.

It’s tempting to floor it and put as much distance as we can between ourselves and those torrid couple of years of lockdowns, ever-changing rules, daily press conferences, testing queues, anti-vaxxers and protests. Easier to move on, close your eyes and think of summer.

Then prime minister Scott Morrison and his COVID-19 taskforce commander, Lieutenant General John Frewen, in January 2022.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Our politicians would probably like us to do exactly that. But it is imperative we don’t put the pandemic behind us without conducting a thorough review of how our leaders, officials and authorities responded. Exactly what form that review should take, however, is complex.

Royal commissions are often used to investigate systemic failures and we’ve seen a number of recent examples shed light on injustice in aged care, the disability sector and institutions that covered up child sexual abuse.

There are certainly aspects of Australia’s COVID-19 response that warrant the sharp lens and sweeping powers of a royal commission. The former federal government’s apparent dithering on vaccine supply falls into this category, as might the design of the JobKeeper payment and the decision-making of the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI).

Add to that list the way ATAGI’s recommendations were communicated to a scared and confused public (recall Scott Morrison’s hasty evening press conference about changes to the AstraZeneca rollout), the early outbreaks in aged care and the health system’s preparedness for an inevitable influx of COVID patients (which governments assured us they had readied for).

A video conference on COVID-19 in July 2021, including ATAGI co-chairs Christopher Blyth and Allen Cheng.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

There were also major machinery of government movements amid the frenzy of the pandemic’s early days; the creation of the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission, headed by former Fortescue Metals boss Nev Power; the formation of a national cabinet and its exemption from freedom of information laws; and the deployment of the powerful Biosecurity Act, the might of which apparently alarmed Morrison enough to get himself appointed as a joint health minister.

All these things are worthy of review, but whether a royal commission is the best vehicle for that is questionable. As public law expert Anne Twomey notes, RCs are good at compelling evidence from people outside government. If we are mainly interested in probing government decisions, it might be sufficient for governments to establish an independent inquiry into its own actions.

In many ways, the most useful thing an inquiry could do is examine the harsh restrictions on people’s liberty enacted at great speed and with imperfect information in our bid to “flatten the curve”, which quickly became an unofficial zero-COVID strategy.

The scale of the intervention was massive: businesses forced to shut; visitors banned from private homes; curfews enforced by the police and army; people locked out of their own state and country. They even closed children’s playgrounds and limited how many people you could have at a funeral. Whatever you think about these individual measures, they warrant a retrospective examination.

Playground closures were a controversial component of COVID-19 restrictions. Did they have any scientific merit?Credit:Rebecca Hallas

It is easy to brush over this period of history by saying that most countries enacted some form of lockdown and that decisions were made in good faith and in the name of protecting the public from a new and frightening disease. That’s true, but it doesn’t absolve us of the need to critically reflect.

An inquiry of this kind is not about apportioning blame for unpopular policies. No one is suggesting cruel intentions were at play. Events took place very fast and people had to make big decisions with incomplete information – perhaps very little information at all. Hindsight, as we know, is 20/20.

Rather, this is about using the benefit of hindsight to enhance our collective knowledge and better prepare for the next pandemic or the next crisis. You would hope and expect health departments, researchers and other interested parties are already doing this behind the scenes. Far better to do it publicly, for all to see.

It would be a fairly intellectually impoverished society that was not interested in how exactly these incursions into everyday life were conceived and decided upon, and what effect if any they had on curbing the transmission of the virus. Frankly, the lack of curiosity about these matters is astounding.

The decisions of state premiers, their cabinets and their chief health officers would have to be a major focus of any public inquiry.

Unfortunately, probing these decisions is probably the most difficult task of all. We are talking in most cases about choices made by a number of state cabinets – or subcommittees of cabinets – in close consultation with state chief health officers. Any royal commission or public inquiry would need explicit co-operation from the states and territories, as well as the Commonwealth but, even then, the information it uncovers may be minimal.

A government could choose to release the minutes of its confidential cabinet discussions, but as Twomey observes: “The problem always is governments tend not to want to reveal too much.”

The United Kingdom has established a public inquiry to “examine the UK’s response to and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and learn lessons for the future”. Its wide-ranging terms of reference includes looking into how decisions were made and implemented, the use of data and research, the efficacy of lockdowns and other non-pharmaceutical interventions such as masks, the impact on school children, mental health and many other issues.

Australia could do far worse than to implement a similar inquiry. Law professor Kim Rubenstein, a harsh critic of policies that stranded Australian citizens abroad during the pandemic, agrees some kind of review is warranted, even if a royal commission isn’t quite right.

The UK may not be an exemplar on pandemic management but anyone who has been to London recently would know it is flourishing, with the country having scrapped the last of its COVID rules in February. And now it has the honesty, maturity and curiosity to openly and publicly examine what happened.

Does Australia?

The Opinion newsletter is a weekly wrap of views that will challenge, champion and inform your own. Sign up here.

Most Viewed in National

From our partners

Source: Read Full Article