Independent MP for Kooyong Dr Monique Ryan calls for public health leadership from the Federal Government in its response to COVID-19 in this final article in Croakey’s COVID series.
Monique Ryan writes:
It’s clear that most Australians have largely moved on from COVID-consciousness, and have returned to a new-normal in their workplaces and family lives. Very few people are wearing masks in public, the workplace and on public transport. All concept of social distancing has gone, in public transport and in schools and workplaces.
Vaccination rates have fallen significantly – and waning immunity means that many people are again susceptible to COVID infection.
We know that many have experienced second, third, or fourth COVID infections in recent months – but we don’t know how many, which strain, or how they’ve managed their illnesses. Right now, we have no data on the incidence of COVID in Australia other than that from hospitalisations and deaths.
With paid COVID leave removed, many have no option but to attend work even if they know themselves to have the illness.
Long COVID and repeated infections
The Parliamentary Committee’s report on long COVID was met by Minister Butler with an immediate promise of $50 million from the MRFF for long COVID response – but we’re only at the expression of interest phase of forming the Expert Advisory Panel to administer those funds. There’s no timeframe for their use, or guidelines on how they’ll be administered.
I have concerns about the extent of ministerial diktat on use of MRFF funds, as I’ve shared with The Age in recent weeks and spoke to in Parliament last month.
Almost all COVID infections occur indoors – we’ve not paid enough attention to the importance of clean air. Improving indoor air quality and ventilation in businesses and schools will prevent acute illnesses and hence long COVID.
Throughout the pandemic, Australia’s states and territories developed guidelines on ventilation and air quality to assist with reducing transmission of COVID-19 and other viruses, but the guidelines are voluntary – different jurisdictions have taken different approaches, resulting in inconsistencies across Australia.
The Government needs to review the National Construction Code and produce our first ever air quality guidelines. We need to improve our buildings and schools, to future-proof them from respiratory illnesses. The Government has not yet acted on this recommendation of the long COVID committee.
In the meanwhile, we have proven and valuable resources like the National Clinical Evidence Taskforce, which has lost its funding and is being forced to disband because of lack of government support. The NCET was a trove of evidence-based scientific advice during the pandemic. Its evidence was cited 30 times in the Health Committee’s report.
That group, which can’t easily be reassembled, is ideally suited to development of evidence-based living guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of long COVID – which was one of the key recommendations from this report. It should immediately be given carryover funding by the Federal Government.
At this point we have little clarity about the government’s plans – if any – for how it will manage further waves of more severe COVID strains. It is not providing effective public health leadership on the prevention or spread of COVID-19.
Despite accepting seven of the eight recommendations of the Halton report, it has not boosted vaccine uptake or clarified its plans for surge periods. We have no clarity regarding how it will manage vaccine procurement and production in future outbreaks.
We’ve had little or no critical analysis of the Federal and state governments’ actions in respect to quarantine and border (state/federal) closures, lockdowns, procurement and supply of PPE, vaccines and antivirals, funding and provision of all forms of testing, vaccine mandates, support of medical professionals, teachers and other frontline staff.
We’ve had no examination of how the governments protected – or in some cases failed to protect – the aged, the disabled and immunocompromised, individuals from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and those from First Nations communities.
Most recently we’ve seen the outgoing Federal Health Secretary Brendan Murphy, claiming that the media was to blame for the public’s negative perception of the rollout of COVID vaccinations, ignoring the Australian National Audit Office’s finding from late 2022 that the Health Department had failed to meet six out of nine measurable targets for the wider vaccine rollout and that it consistently failed to meet vaccine targets among vulnerable populations.
Preparation for future pandemics
Our healthcare workforce is exhausted and depleted. The failures of the last three years – the vaccine stroll-out and mis-messaging, the lockdowns, the disputes between the state and federal governments, the summer where we couldn’t get RATs and queued for hours for PCRs – have left people disaffected and distrusting.
Our initial outstanding vaccine uptake has slowed and almost halted. Many are unconvinced of the benefit and safety of further vaccines. Last October, the CMO suggested to the PM that he task ‘the appropriate body’ with creating a plan for the next variant, and the next surge.
After three and a half years, we still have no plan and we’ve removed almost all protections and public health measures. In September 2022 I proposed a National Summit on COVID – a chance for the business sector, economists, scientists, health professionals and representatives from the aged, disability and childcare sectors to rebuild a national consensus approach to COVID-19.
In October Jane Halton, Chair of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, pushed for more effective vaccine procurement and development of an updated approach to inform decision-making, purchasing, clinical decision-making and resource allocation.
Neither was actioned by the Albanese Government.
We need a formal review to all aspects of Australia’s COVID response – to prepare ourselves for further COVID but also because international evidence strongly suggests that we are at risk of more pandemics in the near future due to the dual pressures of increased international travel and the effects of climate change.
The Albanese Government has not yet generated a cohesive plan for further significant COVID outbreaks.
I called for a Royal Commission into our COVID response when I spoke in Parliament about the Long COVID report in the last sitting fortnight. I remain convinced that if we do not critically review our experience of the pandemic in the near term, we will repeat the mistakes we made last time, the next time – at further cost to our economy and to our health.
- Changing Australia’s approach to managing COVID-19 pandemic may help reduce burden on health system
- How governments are (still) failing the public on COVID control
- Confronting COVID amid many public health challenges
- On COVID complacency, what are the costs?
- Where’s the public health messaging, Health Minister?
See Croakey’s archive of articles on COVID.