Scathing Report into Australia's COVID-19 Response Forces State Leaders to Defend Pandemic Measures

Scathing Report into Australia's COVID-19 Response Forces State Leaders to Defend Pandemic Measures
(From L to R) Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan at a press conference after a National Cabinet meeting at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, on June 17, 2022. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)
Daniel Y. Teng

Australian state and territory leaders—many of whom pursued a zero-COVID or tough suppression strategy—defended their policy response amid the release of a new report calling the country's COVID-19 measures “excessive” and “harsh.”

The report, 'Fault lines: An Independent Review into Australia’s Response to COVID-19,' was also critical of school closures, aged care response and warned there could be long-term mental health consequences.

“Initially, an anxious Australia seemed to accept that far-reaching lockdowns were necessary, even desirable. But the balance between the costs and benefits of lockdowns swung towards costs long before governments were willing to lift them,” the report said.

“Many lockdowns were avoidable. Some were the result of failures in our quarantine systems, our contact tracing systems, a sluggish vaccine rollout and shortcomings in our communication with key parts of our community.

“Some decisions were politically motivated. Some responded to public fear whipped up by the media.”

Leaders Firm on COVID-19 Response

In response, Victorian Labor Premier Daniel Andrews, who oversaw one of the world's longest lockdowns—placing Melbourne under heavy restrictions for 262 days—defended his approach.

"There was nothing academic about COVID-19," he told reporters. "There's nothing academic about the fact that we didn't have any vaccines."

“That’s why when I say to you that these decisions were not made lightly and they were the subject of debate and discussion and very careful consideration,’’ he said.

While in New South Wales (NSW), which endured its toughest year in 2021, saw centre-right Liberal Premier Dominic Perrottet concede that "difficult decisions" had to be made.

"We got some right, we got some wrong," he said.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk defended her government's approach, which included ordering tight restrictions around the state's domestic borders to keep residents from NSW and Victoria from entering.

"We made the decisions in the best interests of Queenslanders and it kept Queenslanders safe," she told reporters. "I stand by our world-leading result when it comes to the number of lives that were lost compared to other jurisdictions."

At the federal level, opposition leader Peter Dutton said the circumstances were quite testing, with political leaders confronted with the scenario of having to "set up morgues adjacent to public hospitals."

"But clearly with some of the lockdowns, I think they went too far—particularly in Victoria—and there was a different response by different state governments," he told 2GB radio on Oct. 20. "Quite a different response in Western Australia to what we saw in NSW for example."

"So, I think it is prudent that there is a review, both of the federal government and the state governments and territory government actions because if there is another pandemic, then we should learn the lessons from the last."

Meanwhile, Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese—then-opposition leader during the COVID-19 years—said the report, chaired by Peter Shergold, Chancellor of Western Sydney University, was serious.

"I have said clearly that my government will undertake, at some future time, a proper inquiry into the impact of the pandemic, the actions of governments," he told reporters on Oct. 20.

"We need to learn the lessons from the pandemic. It is quite clear some of the lessons we have learnt and have indicated that we are responding to. Our economy needs to be made more resilient, we need to make more things here."

One concern about the government's earmarked inquiry into the response to COVID-19 is that it focuses too much on the previous Liberal-National federal government's actions but not state governments, which were responsible for direct lockdowns, restrictions, and border closures.

Daniel Y. Teng is based in Brisbane, Australia. He focuses on national affairs including federal politics, COVID-19 response, and Australia-China relations. Got a tip? Contact him at [email protected].