Written by George Williams, Centre board member and University of New South Wales deputy vice-chancellor and professor of law. Originally published in the Australian on March 20 2022.
The extreme measures deployed by governments to combat Covid-19 have produced white-hot anger in parts of the community. Vaccination mandates, border closures and lockdowns have fuelled protest movements as people have used violence and other tactics to have their voice heard. The protesters in Australia represent a small minority, but nonetheless they should not be ignored.
The rising number of disaffected people is a dangerous development for our democracy and deserves a response. Action needs to be taken to restore trust and confidence in our governments and institutions.
An important first step is to conduct a wide-ranging and open public inquiry into the actions of government during the pandemic.
The UK has already embarked on this path. Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed to a Covid-19 inquiry last year chaired by retired judge Lady Hallett. The aim is a “frank and candid” assessment of how the pandemic was managed that will cut through the misinformation that abounds in this area.
The draft terms of reference for the UK inquiry were released last week. It will report on how the UK prepared for and then responded to the pandemic across all tiers of government.
Areas covered include: how decisions were made, communicated and implemented; the use of data; the effectiveness of lockdowns, social distancing and masks; testing and contact tracing; restrictions on education, and; the closure and reopening of the hospitality, retail and other sectors.
The UK inquiry will also focus on the performance of the health and care sectors. Were the correct infection prevention and control strategies put in place? Did aged-care homes do enough to protect their residents, and did they have the right rules in place for visitors? How did the response to Covid-19 impact on people with other health conditions?
These health measures will also be examined in light of their economic costs, including whether enough was done to preserve jobs and businesses.
The inquiry will be directed to go beyond the experts. The terms of reference require it to “listen to the experiences of bereaved families and others who have suffered hardship or loss because of the pandemic”. It must also consider the experiences of health and care sector workers. This will ensure findings are informed by those who experienced loss during the pandemic and who worked tirelessly to protect the community.
Australia should follow the UK lead by holding a royal commission chaired by a trusted independent figure.
The pandemic is the most important public policy challenge of our time and requires thorough examination and scrutiny. We owe this to those who lost loved ones and others whose livelihoods were destroyed by government health measures.
All Australians deserve answers to basic questions such as whether state borders needed to be closed, and if so for how long, and if enough was done to prepare the nation for the emergency.
The normal accountability mechanisms provided by parliament have not answered these questions. Although some have run their own inquiries, others were missing in action at the height of the pandemic.
The NSW parliament, for example, failed to sit for months during the worst of the lockdowns, and in other cases parliaments have been prevented from disallowing ministerial orders. This is hardly sufficient to inspire confidence in the people most sceptical of pandemic measures.
An inquiry is also needed to prepare Australians for the next public health emergency. Now is the time to begin a hard-headed, independent assessment of where our governments misstepped and where they got it right. This is vital for informing our approach to the next pandemic. Without this, future public health responses may be unduly influenced by the overly positive assessments governments routinely make of their own achievements.
Assessing Australia’s pandemic response requires a holistic assessment of the public health, economic and community impacts.
The key is to assess the proportionality of measures and to discern their often unintended broader impacts. The fact we are a federation will assist. The different approaches rolled out across Australia can be compared.
A good example is the long-term closing of the Western Australian border. Was this the right decision not only for the people of that state, but for the nation as a whole? In the next pandemic, should states adopt an approach closer to that of WA or NSW?
We cannot expect disaffected Australians to regain trust in our political institutions without a full accounting of our pandemic response.
Without transparency, there will always be a suspicion that governments are hiding their mistakes and that the benefits of mandatory vaccination, lockdowns and other measures were overblown.
Our governments did much to protect us from the worst of the pandemic. However, we must also acknowledge that in some areas, such as curfews and preventing Australian citizens from returning home, they made mistakes and went too far.