COVID-19 INQUIRY: Restricting Movement and Curfews Not Backed by Medical Advice: Former Minister

Former Health Minister Greg Hunt suggested states should not make decisions against national cabinet unless there is published and signed medical advice.
COVID-19 INQUIRY: Restricting Movement and Curfews Not Backed by Medical Advice: Former Minister
A sign reading “Go straight home and Isolate” at the exit of a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site at Highpoint shopping center in Melbourne, Australia, on July 4, 2020. (Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)
Monica O’Shea

Victoria’s decision to implement a 5-kilometre (3.1 miles) radius and curfew during COVID-19 went against medical advice, according to former Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt.

The curfews and 5 km radius were both brought in by former Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews during the 2020 and 2021 lockdowns in metropolitan Melbourne.

Mr. Hunt, who served as health minister during the pandemic, took aim at the unilateral decision of some states in his submission to the COVID-19 inquiry.

The former federal minister said social distancing was largely brought in via the coordination of the national cabinet and then via the unilateral decisions of some states.

He said to his knowledge curfews and restrictions on movement were not subject to federal advice, or to the best of his knowledge, medical advice.

“National Cabinet developed a series of step-up and step-down distancing measures as part of the Covid Roadmap. This included nationally agreed restrictions on gatherings following medical advice,” Mr. Hunt said (pdf).

“Subsequent unilateral decisions of some States outside of the National Cabinet framework, such as Victoria’s curfews or 5 km movement restrictions were not the subject of Commonwealth advice, and nor to the best of my knowledge has the medical advice for such restrictions been either released or affirmed at State level.”

Mr. Hunt recommended that the states should follow and publish the medical advice in any future pandemic.

“Given the strong presumption of individual freedom and liberty that underpins our nation and the risks to educational attainment and mental health, my strong forward recommendation is that all States and Territories adopt a uniform national code for pandemic management which mandates medical advice be published for any restrictive measures,” Mr. Hunt said.

“Although this was not a legal requirement under the Biosecurity Act, it was nevertheless a practice that we adopted and which I would also recommend be included in amendments to the Commonwealth Biosecurity Act.”

Mr. Hunt recommended states commit “not to take unilateral decisions” against national cabinet decisions unless there is published and signed medical advice to the contrary at the Deputy Chief Health Officer level or above.

He also suggested that a Memorandum of Understanding should be signed between the Commonwealth and States that commits to the continuous use of the National Cabinet for future pandemic management.

Looking Back at the Curfew

During one of the world’s longest lockdowns, then Premier Daniel Andrews implemented a 5 km radius and curfews in both 2020 and 2021.

The first curfew took place in 2020, and applied from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m.. The second curfew, in 2021, applied from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m..

“The strengthened settings will see a curfew imposed from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. every night. There will be increased police presence across metropolitan Melbourne to ensure public health measures are enforced,” the former Victorian Premier said in August 2021.

“Exercise and shopping are still limited to 5 km from your home. If there’s no shops in your 5 km radius, you can travel to the ones closest to you. You are also able to travel more than 5 km to get a vaccine if you need to.”

Mr. Andrews said at the time that the restrictions were hard work for every Victorian, but the rules were in place for a reason.

“Everyone wants this pandemic to be over, but the rules are in place for a reason—we know they work and if we follow them together, we’ll be able to lift them sooner,” he said at the time.

What Else Did Greg Hunt Say

The submission, dated April 23, covered a broad range of subjects including border closures, testing, tracing, social distancing, aged care capacity, and the vaccine.

Australia’s former health minister said “few countries” limited loss of life and maintained livelihoods more effectively than Australia.

He noted that in Australia, life expectancy rose by 0.2 years, while it fell by 1.6 years on average globally in 2020 and 2021.

“The central observation of Australia’s pandemic Health response is that Australia achieved one of the lowest rates of loss of life, one of the highest vaccination rates at 98 percent double vaccination for over 18-year-old Australians, and one of the most resilient economic outcomes in the world,” Mr. Hunt said.

As for the border closures, Mr. Hunt described the early closure of the border with China on Feb. 1 2021 as the most “significant action.”

“This faced criticism from China, the WHO, and various domestic actors, and was seen by some other like-minded countries (who subsequently had significantly worse outcomes) as not a decision they were willing to take at that stage,” Mr. Hunt said.

“However, it is arguably the most important peace time decision taken by any Australian government since the Second World War and along with subsequent decisions was critical to saving lives and making space for vaccination and therapeutic programs along with building health system capacity.”

In relation to the vaccine, Mr. Hunt said the decision to manufacture Astra Zeneca and CSL vaccines in Australia was “one of the most important decisions” and actions taken by the government during the pandemic.

“Of particular importance was the 99 percent vaccination rate in aged care staff and 92.5 percent rate for aged care residents,” Mr. Hunt said.

AstraZeneca announced it withdrew its COVID-19 vaccine globally on May 8, although it had already been withdrawn in Australia.

Mr. Hunt said in his submission that he had attached 1,700 pages of materials provided before he retired from Parliament for any future inquiry or reference needs.

He thanked his staff, family, children, and wife for their support during the pandemic, especially his wife Paula, who as a surgical nurse responsible for infection control advised him to “go hard, go early,” in January 2020.

Monica O’Shea is a reporter based in Australia. She previously worked as a reporter for Motley Fool Australia, Daily Mail Australia, and Fairfax Regional Media.
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