Covid-19: Review reveals four ways Australia failed in pandemic

An independent review of Australia’s response to Covid-19 has found that “significant mistakes were made” during the pandemic and vulnerable communities were hit hardest.

Western Sydney University chancellor Peter Shergold led the review panel and told reporters on Thursday that significant mistakes were made during the pandemic.

“I think the single biggest failure was not sufficiently planning for the fault lines in society,” Mr Shergold said.

“Those who are disadvantaged, those who are vulnerable.”

He said the government would have known that low-socio economic groups would be impacted more harshly by Covid policies.

“People who are on the wrong side of the digital divide, women, migrants who are here from non-English speaking backgrounds, First Nations people,” Mr Shergold listed.

“So right at the start this next time, we need to put those fault lines first and foremost in mind if we’re going to handle a national pandemic correctly.”

The 97-page-review was funded by the Paul Ramsay Foundation, John and Myriam Wylie Foundation and Andrew Forrest’s Minderoo Foundation.

The review panel acknowledged that decisions were made under a “fog of uncertainty” and “significant mistakes were made”.

Mr Shergold said the purpose of the review was not to lay blame on anyone but to ensure mistakes were not made twice.

“In a real sense, we are all responsible,” he said.

“I cannot say to you with my hand on my heart that two years ago in that swirling fog of uncertainty I would have made different decisions or given different advice.

“The key is that we‘ve learned the lesson for the next time or even for the rest of this pandemic.”

A major concern of the report was the implementation of policies without regard for the “inequalities that already exist” in society.

“(For some) Covid-19 will be a story of trauma, isolation and terrifying uncertainty,” the panel said.

“It will be a story of being locked in overcrowded housing, job loss and missing out on government supports.”

As for lockdowns that divided cities like Sydney between east and west, Mr Shergold said the policy was an effective way of containing an outbreak.

“But the danger of doing that is it can undermine public trust when people in Bankstown think they‘re being unfairly treated compared with people in Bondi,” he said.

Mr Shergold said a major outcome of the review was the need to involve local governments in the implementation and communication of national policies within their communities.

Soaring domestic violence rates, increased alcohol abuse and deteriorating mental and physical health were among some of the pandemic’s worst outcomes.

The panel also blamed the exclusion of short-term casual and temporary migrant workers from JobKeeper for the current labour shortage crisis.

“We need to place vulnerable Australians at the centre of our planning,” Professor Shergold said.

The review highlights four key areas where the government should have done better.

1. Economic supports should have been provided fairly and equitably

“Rules were too often formulated and enforced in ways that lacked fairness and compassion,” the panel said.

“Such overreach undermined public trust and confidence in the institutions that are vital to effective crisis response.”

The review also pointed to the unfair impact of lockdowns on children and parents, particularly mothers.

“For children and parents (particularly women), we failed to get the balance right between protecting health and imposing long-term costs on education, mental health, the economy and workforce outcomes,” the panel said.

2. Lockdowns and border closures should have been used less

The review found lockdowns and border closures should have been a “last resort” and suggested it would have not been necessary if policy didn’t fail in other areas.

“Too many of Australia’s lockdowns and border closures were the result of policy failures,” the panel said.

Mr Shergold said lockdowns should be used to “buy time” to purchase vaccines and PPE, prepare hospitals and ICU departments and nail down contact tracing and quarantine procedures.

The review also found that politics contributed to unnecessary lockdowns.

“Politics also played a role. Localised outbreaks were inevitable. Statewide and nationwide outbreaks were not,” the panel said.

3. Schools should have stayed open

“It was wrong to close entire school systems, particularly once new information indicated that schools were not high-transmission environments,” the panel said.

Mr Shergold said we know now that there were significant costs to shutting down schools.

“It’s not just educational disruption or the impact on the economy because parents have to stay home or the increased pressure on parents and particularly I’d have to say mums,” he said.

Women were found to have borne the brunt of childminding responsibilities when schools closed, taking up an extra four hours of unpaid domestic work per day.

This made women 30 per cent more likely than men to leave the workforce in the first months of the pandemic.

“We can already see it in terms of the stress and the anxiety and the frankly mental ill health of many young people who have not just been shut out of school but shut out of normal life,” Mr Shergold said.

4. Older Australians should have been better protected

The review suggests that the government should have paid more attention to elderly Australians given the pre-existing problems in aged care.

“Funding was inadequate. The labour force was stretched. Fixing aged care requires changed attitudes,” the panel said.

The review said restricting aged care residents from going to hospital when they contracted Covid was a “mistake that cost lives”, while restrictions on aged care visits past the worst of the pandemic were said to have caused “unnecessary pain and distress”.

Two hundred health experts, public servants, ­epidemiologists, unions, community groups, businesses and economists were consulted to formulate the review and 3000 hours were put into research, policy and data analysis.

The review panel made six recommendations for future health crises.

1 Establish an independent, data-driven Australian Centre for Disease Control and Prevention

2 Clearly define national cabinet roles and responsibilities in a crisis

3 Publicly release modelling used in government decision making

4 Regular pandemic scenario testing

5 Sharing and linking of data between jurisdictions

6 Establish an Office of the Evaluator General for real-time tracking of policy performance during a crisis

Other areas of concern included the sheer size of debt created during the pandemic, suggesting it will take 20 years to return to pre-Covid debt to GDP levels.

“Federal government net debt has risen from 19 per cent of GDP in 2019 to 28 per cent of GDP in 2022,” the panel said.

Total debt across the states and territories is almost four times as high as it was in 2019.

“Governments will need to decide who should bear the cost of budget repair and how much of it will fall on young people,” it said.

The panel criticised the government’s failure to include a clawback mechanism for businesses supported by JobKeeper, calling it “a design fault”.

“It was fiscally irresponsible and unfair when other groups in society were excluded from economic supports,” the panel said.

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