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Pandemic probe to examine vaccines, support – but there are major gaps

Three experts will probe Australia's pandemic response, including lockdowns and vaccine purchases.

Three experts will probe Australia's pandemic response, including lockdowns and vaccine purchases. Photo: Getty

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has slammed the terms of an inquiry into Australia’s handling of the COVID pandemic that will not examine state decisions.

The 12-month inquiry will probe how vaccines were secured and how people were helped during lockdowns.

But the scope revealed by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Health Minister Mark Butler on Thursday specifically excludes “actions taken unilaterally by state and territory governments”.

Dutton accused Albanese of shielding the states from scrutiny and said Australians were “smart enough to smell a rat”.

He said Albanese had been “rolled” by Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.

“If there’s nothing to hide here, then why not let the sun shine? I think the Prime Minister has made a deliberate decision to put the interests of Labor premiers ahead of our national interest and that is a shameful act from a Prime Minister who has been elected by the Australian people to provide support and to lead the whole nation,” Dutton said.

“I think most people will be quite stunned to understand that premiers who were responsible for lockdowns, the very significant number of deaths in Victoria, the mental health issues that still linger today in Victoria and elsewhere … would be excluded from consideration in this inquiry.

“I think Australians are smart enough to smell a rat here and the Prime Minister has made a decision which is not in our national interest and goes against what he promised to the Australian public.”

The inquiry will be led by former director-general of the NSW Department of Health Robyn Kruk, Deakin University’s epidemiology chair Professor Catherine Bennett, and health economist Dr Angela Jackson.

A final report will be delivered by September 30 next year.

The terms of reference include the provision of vaccinations, treatments and key medical supplies to Australians, mental health support for those affected by the virus and lockdowns, financial support for individuals and business, and assistance for Australians abroad.

Also excluded will be international programs and activities to aid foreign countries.

Albanese said the inquiry needed to be “forward focused”.

“We need a future made in Australia, we need to be more resilient, we need to be more prepared for this in the future – and that’s precisely what this inquiry will be aimed at,” he said.

Inquiry into Australia's pandemic response

Some federal opposition members have taken aim at Albanese after his pre-election promise of a royal commission into the pandemic.

On May 6 last year, during the election campaign, Albanese said: “I support looking at it through a measure like a royal commission. We haven’t finalised what the structure would be.”

On Thursday, Albanese said royal commissions involved a longer process.

Opposition health spokeswoman Anne Ruston warned any review without the power to compel state and territory leaders would be a waste of time.

“It’s a protection racket for the states and territories and potentially a witch hunt on the previous Coalition government.

“So many of the decisions that impacted Australians so significantly during the pandemic were decisions of the states and territories.” she told Adelaide radio station 5AA on Thursday.

It was important the review didn’t become “a witch-hunt”, Ruston said.

She said the federal government’s ongoing response to the pandemic should also be investigated, including why increased numbers of older Australians are dying in aged care.

Andrews welcomed the focus on planning for future disasters.

“We need to make sure whether it is fire, flood, pandemic and everything in between, that we try to learn from each of those episodes and be better, if you can, try to be better prepared because of it,” he said.

“That is what I think the Prime Minister is trying to achieve and we will cooperate and be part of that, for sure.”

But he pushed back on a suggestion from former prime minister Scott Morrison that anything less than a royal commission would be obsolete as it would be unable to compel current and former state officials to appear.

He denied Albanese had potentially done him a favour and pledged his government would co-operate with the inquiry.

“I’m not here to respond to anything that Scott Morrison says,” he said in Melbourne.

“The people of Australia have passed their judgment on him.”

Earlier this week, Morrison told the Australian Financial Review that he would co-operate with a COVID inquiry, but only if the actions of states and territories were also examined.

“Throughout COVID we established an ongoing Senate inquiry to provide transparency and accountability in real time and identify important lessons along the way,” he said.

“Any serious retrospective inquiry that seeks to go back over this ground would be obsolete if it did not require equal attention and involvement of all state and territory governments who shared in Australia’s response to this one-in-a-100-year event.”

Only three state/territory leaders who were there during COVID remain in office – Andrews (Victoria), Palaszczuk (Queensland) and Andrew Barr (ACT).

-with AAP

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