State and territory decisions will be excluded from inquiry into COVID pandemic responses

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Decisions made by state and territory governments – such as state-based lockdowns and border closures – will be outside the scope of the COVID inquiry announced by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Thursday.

A three-person panel led by a public service expert, epidemiologist and health economist will be given 12 months to probe the Commonwealth’s response to the COVID pandemic and make recommendations for how Australia can better prepare for similar events.

A federal inquiry will be held into responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.Credit: Getty Images

The inquiry will review the provision of vaccinations, treatments and key medical supplies to Australians, mental health support for those impacted by COVID-19 and lockdowns, financial support for individuals and business, and assistance for Australians abroad.

It will also investigate the role of the different governments in responding to the pandemic, and the coordination of national cabinet. But major decisions made unilaterally by premiers and chief ministers – which also include school closures and vaccine mandates – will fall outside the review’s scope.

Former senior public servant Robyn Kruk, epidemiologist Professor Catherine Bennett and health economist Dr Angela Jackson will lead the inquiry, which will invite submissions from members of the public and be supported by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

“I’m very pleased, and I want to thank the three individuals who’ve agreed to be part of this inquiry. They have vast experience in public health in government and economic expertise,” Albanese said.

He insisted the inquiry would be a “constructive, rather than destructive” process.

“We need to examine what went right, what could be done better with a focus on the future. Because the health experts and the science tells us that this … is not likely to be the last one that occurs. So that’s why better preparedness is very important.”

Albanese defended his government’s decision to hold an inquiry instead of a royal commission into the COVID pandemic, as had been called for by some health and policy experts.

“No one promised a royal commission,” he said.

“What do you think a royal commission could do that this couldn’t do? Nothing… This will be an inquiry that we’ll hear from stakeholders that will get input that will report within a year because a lot of the work has already been done. There have been 20 different inquiries.”

Coalition health spokeswoman Anne Ruston said it was essential that an inquiry probed state and territory responses as well as the Commonwealth’s. She called for leaders to be compelled to give evidence so that the investigation was not politicised against the former Coalition federal government.

Ruston told ABC News Breakfast earlier on Thursday morning that unless the inquiry had the power to compel states and territories to participate, it would be a “protection racket for the states and territories and potentially a witch hunt on the previous Coalition government”.

“Because so many of the decisions that impacted Australians so significantly during the pandemic were decisions of the states and territories,” she said.

“This was a once in a hundred-year incidence in this country and it deserves to be absolutely and properly prosecuted if we are going to have an inquiry.”

Albanese batted away questions about whether state and territory leaders would be compelled to appear before the inquiry, saying there had been several changes of government across the country since the pandemic began.

“I should imagine that everyone will want to participate in this,” Albanese said, without giving a direct answer as to whether current or former premiers and chief ministers would be forced to partake.

Instead, he pointed to the fact that many state and territory leaders now in power had not been in charge of the pandemic response.

Albanese said the inquiry should not be “subjected to political bickering”.

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