How Australian Governments Got COVID So Wrong?
By Jennifer Hewett
The review of Australia’s COVID response reveals the cost of lockdowns and border closures. But don’t expect premiers or the former prime minister to concede errors.
In late 2022, the era of prolonged shutdowns, rigid border closures, unnecessary panics, social distancing and strict curfews seems more like a nightmare most people prefer to forget. But a scathing independent review of Australia’s COVID response is an awkward reminder of how governments made some very bad choices and why acknowledging this is the best way to avoid similar errors in a future crisis.
Not that humility or a willingness to concede errors is apparent among COVID’s political leadership group. As leader of the Opposition at the time, Anthony Albanese can afford to say it’s a “serious piece of work” which raises concerns and will feed into the government’s promised national investigation.
Peter Shergold (foreground) and David Gonski during a press conference at NSW parliament on Tuesday.
But Scott Morrison has been stonily silent since his defeat, while some premiers have left office, voluntarily or otherwise. It’s hard to imagine Mark McGowan in Western Australia or Annastacia Palaszczuk in Queensland accepting blame for anything at all. And there’s certainly no concessions from the man who presided over the longest COVID lockdown of any city in the world.
In full campaign mode ahead of a state election, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews insists he’s not dismissing the report and its damning findings about “overreach” by governments. His typical tone of aggressive rebuttal still comes through clearly. He hasn’t read the report, he says, but there are many, many reports.
“These were very difficult decisions. None of them were lightly made,” he said. “We showed the rest of the country – many of whom thought it was good sport to be having a go at Victorians – that when we stick together, when we have the sense of unity, we can achieve anything. And that’s exactly what we did.”
Yet the review, funded by three major philanthropic foundations and led by university chancellor and former senior federal public servant Peter Shergold, is startlingly clear in assessing the long-term costs of the accumulating flaws in Australia’s response. It’s appropriately called Fault Lines.
That’s even though the authors accept government responses in a crisis can never be perfect and Australian governments did get many of the big calls right. But they also got some highly consequential calls wrong, often with disastrous results.
This became increasingly obvious as “the fog of war” dissipated along with the initial ignorance about the extent of the potential deadly impact of the virus and how it spread. The report argues Australian governments were too inflexible, too slow to adapt and too dismissive of human rights to alter harsh implementation of measures even when these were counter-productive or damaging.
This was compounded by inadequately incorporating business know-how and the frontline experience of community organisations into government decision-making. And while the National Co-ordination Commission led by Nev Power was able to draw on business networks to solve logistical bottlenecks, it was less successful at influencing public policy.
According to Shergold, initial border closures and lockdowns initially bought time to collect information, bolster the health system and distribute vaccines. Yet this time was not used well enough, meaning repeated resort to “blunt instruments” was due to policy failures in quarantine, contact tracing, testing, disease surveillance and effective communication about the need for preventive measures like mask-wearing and social distancing.
“The balance between the costs and benefits of lockdowns swung towards costs long before governments were willing to lift them,” it states. “Their imposition lacked consistency, compassion and clarity.”
According to the review, it was also wrong to close entire school systems, particularly when new information indicated schools were not high-transmission environments.
“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,” it says. “The same applies to closing universities and vocational education and training centres. The social and economic costs were likely significant.”
Even Australia’s smug boast about its relatively low death rate from COVID is belatedly being challenged, with cases and deaths in 2022 higher than the OECD average. Other health trade-offs were ignored.
“It is now obvious that we overestimated mortality and underestimated the collateral damage of the actions taken to stop the spread of COVID-19,” the report says. “It could take a decade for Australia to reverse the impacts of deferred primary care and preventative treatment.”
The result, according to the review, is that aggregate statistics “hide a pandemic that was unequal, unfair and uncertain in its impacts”.
That unfairness and inequity ranged from policy errors like the failure to protect Australians in aged care to excluding temporary migrants, international students and many casuals from economic support while failing to include a clawback mechanism for businesses receiving JobKeeper but maintaining or lifting profits.
The report also addresses the significance of political calculations underpinning decisions, with the absence of transparency making it easier for leaders to be selective about what “expert advice” they were following.
“Leaders routinely claimed to base policy on expert advice,” it says. “But it became clear that experts (both within and outside government) often differed in their advice. Government leaders cannot abdicate their responsibility for decisions, especially those that had long-term consequences such as lockdowns and mandatory health orders.”
None of this was helped by disagreement and division as the pandemic revealed the power of state governments. The unifying value of National Cabinet waned over time, the report says, as infighting and blame games re-emerged.
Recommendations include better pandemic planning, greater transparency and public service collaboration, modernising data use and establishment of a Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as an independent Evaluator General to track policy performance in a crisis.
Better policy luck next time?