Covid response inquiry expands to look at evidence backing decisions of state leaders to order lockdowns during the pandemic

A federal government inquiry into the response to the Covid pandemic has widened its scope and will look at what evidence state leaders used to order lockdowns. 

A paragraph recently appearing on the inquiry’s website states it will: ‘Consider how evidence informed decisions regarding interventions, such as lockdowns, in different jurisdictions across Australia.’

The government was widely criticised after the inquiry, announced in September, specifically said it would not look at ‘unilateral’ decisions made by state and territory governments.

Measures such as lockdowns, school closures, mask mandates and hardened state borders were all under state and territory government control so under the terms of reference would not be under the spotlight.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton claimed Labor premiers were being shielded from scrutiny, saying the inquiry should be able to order states and territories to participate.

Human rights commissioner Lorraine Finlay said the inquiry would be a toothless version of a Royal Commission. 

The evidence used to declare lockdowns will be looked at by the federal government’s Covid inquiry after it was previously stated decisions of premiers would not be included (pictured: Melbourne during lockdown in 2021)

Former Victorian Premier Dan Andrews oversaw the longest lockdown in the world in Melbourne. He recently resigned saying the state's top job had left him exhausted

Former Victorian Premier Dan Andrews oversaw the longest lockdown in the world in Melbourne. He recently resigned saying the state’s top job had left him exhausted

The decisions of premiers about when to implement lockdowns or closures, for how long and how they would be enforced will still be excluded from the inquiry, but the change means it will look at whether the measures themselves were backed up by evidence. 

Other rules brought in between 2020 and 2022 included restrictions on outdoor exercise, restrictions on gathering in groups, preventing people from travelling more than a few kilometres from their residence and night curfews. 

The aim of the new inclusion in the terms of reference is to look at how well evidence was used when forming policies so the process can be improved going forward, rather than putting each decision made by premiers under the microscope. 

‘It’s not the inquiry’s job to interrogate why a lockdown happened in a particular setting, but the way evidence was used in the process of [that] decision-making,’ one of the three inquiry leads, Catherine Bennett, told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Mr Dutton previously said it was a ‘protection racket’ for Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and WA Premier Mark McGowan.

‘That the prime minister of our country would side with Daniel Andrews and Annastacia Palaszczuk over the people of Victoria, or indeed the people of our country, is a shameful act,’ he said.

Health and childcare experts want the inquiry to examine the pandemic’s impact on children, notably school shutdowns.

The deserted Melbourne CBD during the depths of lockdown in 2021 (pictured)

The deserted Melbourne CBD during the depths of lockdown in 2021 (pictured) 

National Children’s Commissioner Anne Hollonds said the inquiry should ‘put a spotlight’ on the needs of kids as the country grapples with youth mental health, school refusal and academic performance.

‘School is about much more than just academic learning that can be replaced by Zoom, and that social learning environment was absent,’ she said.

Ms Hollonds said she would be personally writing to the inquiry to recommend it learn from how other countries cared for their children during the pandemic.

‘I’ll be recommending that perhaps we should look at a child wellbeing council of multidisciplinary experts who could provide advice to governments at critical times like this,’ she said.

‘And ideally, that there be a minister for children whose accountability it is to pay attention to the unique needs of children and young people.’

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr are now the only state and territory leaders to continue in office since National Cabinet was formed in March 2020 to help drive Australia’s Covid response.

Andrews, McGowan, NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner and Liberal Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein all said the Covid crises had left them exhausted and played a part in them stepping down. 

Public submissions to the inquiry opened Monday and a final report by the panel will be handed down by September 30, 2024.