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An inquiry into Australia’s COVID-19 responses is what’s needed now

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Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison adjusts his mask during a news conference he holds with French President Emmanuel Macron in front of the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, 15 June 2021. (REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol via Reuters Connect).

In Brief

Everyone has a view on the saga surrounding Novak Djokovic and his Australian visa. The question though is: how did it come to this? How is it that one of the world’s all-time great tennis players and his team of staff couldn’t navigate Australia’s COVID safe rules?


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Whether or not he should have been allowed into Australia doesn’t matter as much as why the Australian system seemed so unclear, capricious and let him land in Melbourne anyway.

This is not an isolated case. Until recently, Australia managed the COVID-19 crisis better than many other countries. But there are too many instances where policies and responses appeared ad hoc or unintelligible, driving up costs, illnesses and deaths. That’s plain to see during the current disastrous wave.

Overwhelmed health bureaucrats focused on dealing with the current crisis rather than preparing for what was coming next.

When Australia shifted from elimination to living with the virus, the country wasn’t ready. Regulatory approvals for rapid antigen tests came too late for people to build up stocks in their own homes and shops, and that left no systems to monitor infections.

Australia’s vaccine approvals came later than in comparable countries. It took too long to buy too few vaccines. Conflicting advice on the vaccine that was then purchased (AstraZeneca) fuelled vaccine hesitancy.

Testing capacity has consistently been playing catchup. State governments required people to have a negative test to travel and were then seemingly caught off-guard by the increased demand for testing that followed.

Some mistakes should be allowed for in such extraordinary circumstances. It’s just that Australia doesn’t seem to have learned fast enough from its own. Australians began 2022 waiting months for their booster shots and spending days lining up for PCR tests.

Part of the problem is mixed and dispersed accountabilities. The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation that advises the Minister for Health on the National Immunisation Program, the Therapeutic Goods Administration that regulates medicines, state and Commonwealth health officials have overlapping responsibilities. But that’s a case for facilitating better coordination.

Another problem is the lack of coordination across expertise. The views of health officials need to be properly weighed against those from security specialists and economists who are more familiar with assessing risks through a broad cost-benefit framework.

Managing a COVID-19 crisis has a lot in common with managing an economic crisis. Clear communication and open assessments help with both. Confidence is everything.

The Opposition Australian Labor Party has promised a US-style centre for disease control. This will achieve little if there isn’t also a fix for overlapping accountabilities. The US CDC has been criticised for poor and changing communication, as well as for failing to make low-cost investments in sharing information.

The Australian Prime Minister should be just as supportive of an inquiry into Australia’s COVID-19 response as he was to one investigating its origins — perhaps more so.

Successful countries scoured for the latest information which they quickly built into their responses. Too often decisions in Australia were made behind closed doors or lagged facts on the ground.

Much of the theatre of deep cleaning and constant hand sanitising should have been abandoned long ago given it was largely ineffective against an airborne virus. QR check-ins are pointless if contact tracing is abandoned.

Purchasing a wider selection of vaccines earlier (like the US Operation Warp Speed) would have allowed the Australian economy to open up sooner.

There were successes. These include removing regulatory barriers inhibiting late night truck deliveries or retired nurses returning to the workforce. But some of Australia’s regulatory systems don’t seem flexible enough to respond to changing risks.

National Cabinet — bringing together the leaderships of federal and state governments — was a timely innovation that tried to convince the states of shared interests in managing a virus that doesn’t recognise borders.

JobKeeper (that funded employers to retain their workforce) and other fiscal supports were useful in maintaining some businesses and jobs important for long term growth but suffered endemic waste. There are few assets to show for the 37 per cent increase in net debt and there is no plan for getting back to fiscal sustainability.

Worse, there is no clear framework for when fiscal supports should come in and how. What needs to change in the social insurance scheme to make sure there is cover against future risks?

The fact that Australia is still relying on antiquated IT systems for getting assistance to those in need remains one of the great mysteries this far into a clearly recurring crisis. We are up to O in the Greek alphabet for variations of the virus, and more virulent strains are not yet out of scope.

Other opportunities went missing, such as helping to lead the global health response, particularly the limited dispersal of vaccines in Australia’s region. Or why Australia took no initiatives to lead mutual opening up to low-risk arrivals and departures earlier that would have cushioned the impact on domestic business and relieved heart aches for untold Australians.

Whoever wins Australia’s next election, due by May, should spend time taking stock of what worked and what didn’t, and how things can be improved. It’s normal business and organisational practice to review operations after such a seismic shock. So should governments. The Australian Productivity Commission has the right skills to power a transparent high-level review that ensures community engagement and consultation.

Some of the conclusions will be clear: less overlap and clearer responsibilities between different jurisdictions; getting specialists from different fields together with a mandate for forward planning and scenario analysis; and utilising real time global data and lessons from other countries.

Have your view on the Djokovic debacle, but don’t let it distract you from the deeper question that confronts Australian policy performance.

Tom Westland is Research Director in the Asian Bureau of Economic Research in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University.

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