COVID-19 Response - Statement

07 August 2023

From the outset, it remains the position of the Albanese Labor government that, given the enormous dislocation, stress, death and expenditure involved, it would be extraordinary not to have an inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic. No-one is walking away from that position—that there is a need for an inquiry. We said that before the election, we have said it since and that remains our position. Indeed, it was some three months ago that I stood here in a debate similar to this—raised by Senator Roberts in that instance as opposed to Senator Babet—and confirmed that position.

But, to be clear, we are not yet through the COVID pandemic; it continues. Cases, hospitalisations and deaths related to COVID-19 continue, maybe at a lower rate, but the pandemic is continuing. For now, the government is rightly focused on monitoring and responding to cases and on ensuring our systems are prepared to respond to future waves, because we all saw what happened when these waves came throughout the pandemic and we were not ready. We saw what happened in early education when educators were sent back into the classroom, into the playroom, without PPE, without any of the protection they needed to keep themselves safe, working with our youngest Australians—little Australians who were not able to socially distance, who were not even able to blow their own noses. Our childcare workers went back into that environment unprotected, unprepared and unheard when they raised those alarms. We saw what happened in aged care, when nurses and carers were exposed to the virus. We saw what happened when it ran rampant through these homes. We saw what happened when the government wasn't prepared with adequate PPE to protect residents and protect workers. And we saw what happened when the government delayed the vaccine rollout. I saw what happened. Friends of mine—doctors and nurses—were going into hospitals every day, coming back and telling me that felt like they were going to fight battle on the frontline of a war. They were coming back to their homes and to their children, terrified of what they may bring back but absolutely determined to help and serve their communities.

Sometimes it's hard to believe that these are things that happened in our lifetime, let alone a few years ago, let alone being part of a pandemic in which we are still living. In all these systems, but especially aged care, we saw what happened when systems failed. We saw what happened when the government took its eye off the ball in terms of preparedness. We saw what happened when our essential workers were not listened to in this environment and we saw the impact on these aged-care and early childhood facilities, on our hospitals and on our skills.

At the risk of opening up a wild can of worms in this chamber during this debate, vaccination remains the single most important step each of us can take to minimise the risk of severe disease and death associated with COVID-19 infection. So of course, the vaccinations remain a focus too.

The pandemic was a once-in-a-century event from which governments globally must learn a significant amount about how to handle and prepare for such a catastrophic event in the future. That will include the Australian government as it includes state and territory governments, most of whom are already undertaking their own inquiries into their responses to the pandemic. These inquiries will provide important information to the Australian government, other levels of government and other actors in such a pandemic on how to respond, how to be prepared, and what needs to change. So a review is wholly appropriate. It would be extraordinary not to have one. But the timing of this matters too. That timing must be well considered, noting Australia is still experiencing COVID-19. This is not over, and there is heightened risk during the winter months, when you're in the middle of risk, when you're in the middle of managing situations and systems.

I want to take the last 40 seconds I have in this debate to thank and recognise all of those who did fight on the front line of this pandemic, all of whom, I am sure, are looking forward to a review and an opportunity to take part in that—ordinary Australians who went above and beyond everyday to protect their fellow Australians. Our nurses, our doctors, our aged-care workers and others in the care economy have provided vital care to Australians in the most trying of circumstances. None of us will forget the faces of exhausted nurses and other healthcare workers during this time but also those who kept the economy moving.