COVID-19 Response Inquiry Announced

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By Darren James, Partner

Earlier today, the Prime Minister and Federal Health Minister announced an Inquiry into Australia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Below is a high-level summary of what’s presently known about the Inquiry.

Who will conduct the Inquiry?

The Inquiry will be conducted by an independent panel which will comprise:

  • Robyn Kruk AO (former Director-General of the NSW Department of Health and inaugural Chief Executive of the National Mental Health Commission);
  • Professor Catherine Bennett (Epidemiologist and Alfred Deakin Professor and Chair in Epidemiology, Deakin University); and
  • Dr Angela Jackson (health economist, and lead economist for Impact Economics and Policy).

The panel will be supported by a taskforce within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

What are the Inquiry’s Terms of Reference?

The Inquiry’s Terms of Reference are available for downloading here.

The Terms of Reference are broad.

The Inquiry will principally review the Federal Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and make recommendations to improve response measures for any future pandemics.

According to the Prime Minister:

“This inquiry will look at the Government’s responses and will give advice on what worked, what didn’t, and what we can do in the future to best protect Australians from the worst of any future events.”

Likely particular areas that the Inquiry will deep dive into include:

  • national governance mechanisms (including the roles and responsibilities of government (including the National Cabinet), national coordination mechanisms, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, and other advisory bodies that supported the government responses to COVID-19);
  • key health response measures (including vacations and treatments, medical supplies, quarantine facilities and public health messaging);
  • health supports for people impacted by COVID-19 and/or lockdowns (including mental health and suicide prevention supports, access to screening and other preventive health measures);
  • support for industry and business (including response to supply chain and transport issues, labour shortages, and support for specific industries);
  • financial support for individuals and communities affected by COVID-19 (including across areas such as education, care, housing, and family and domestic violence, within areas of Federal Government responsibility);
  • mechanisms for meeting the needs of particular populations (including across genders, age groups, socio-economic status, geographic location, people with disability, First Nations peoples and communities, and people from CALD communities); and
  • policies to support Australians at home and abroad during COVID_19 (including around international border closures).

The Inquiry will consider the findings of previous relevant inquiries and reviews, the global experience and lessons learnt from other countries, in order to improve response measures for any future pandemics.

What won’t the Inquiry do?

The Inquiry’s Terms of Reference make it clear that it will not look at:

  • actions taken unilaterally by State or Territory Governments; and
  • international programs and activities assisting foreign countries.

The exclusion of unilateral State and Territory Government action may well mean that some decisions by premiers, chief ministers, ministers, chief health officers and other State and Territory government officials, on lockdowns, border and school closures and vaccine mandates, may fall outside of the Inquiry’s purview.

How will the Inquiry do its work?

It is expected that the panel will be tasked with determining how it proceeds, and its processes, itself.

The Inquiry’s Terms of Reference, however, make it clear that there will be public consultation, including with key community and other stakeholders, experts, Federal Government, State and Territory government agencies, and members of the public, during the Inquiry.

The public consultation will be on issues outlined in the Terms of Reference.

Will the Inquiry be a Royal Commission?

It is understood that the Inquiry will not be a Royal Commission.

What powers will the Inquiry have?

The Terms of Reference do not specify what powers the Panel Members will have.

Statements attributed to the Prime Minister in today’s media, however, point strongly to the Inquiry likely having the similar powers to a Royal Commission, meaning that it is likely that the Inquiry will be able to compel the production of documents and the giving of evidence.

How long will the Inquiry last and when is its report due?

The Inquiry’s Terms of Reference make it clear that the Inquiry must be completed by the end of September 2024, at which time the Panel is to provide their final report, with recommendations, to the Government.

Further developments

Further information about the Inquiry is likely to be made available in coming weeks.

About the author

Darren James is an award-winning Australian litigation lawyer, and a partner at Australian commercial law firm, Mills Oakley.

Darren has acted in and advised in relation to many Royal Commissions and Parliamentary Inquiries, including the Aged Care Royal Commission, the Disability Royal Commission and the Banking Royal Commission.

He has also acted for persons and entities faced with class actions, regulatory action and other legal proceedings, following the conclusion of Royal Commissions and Inquiries.

* This article is of a general and informational nature. It does not constitute legal or professional advice by the author or by Mills Oakley, and must not be relied on as such.

For further information, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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