Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall speaks on the need for a Health Royal Commission

8 February 2022


Ms STEGGALL (Warringah) (19:40): Just over two years ago, on 25 January 2020, the first case of COVID-19 was detected in Australia. While our initial response was strong and we took advantage of our isolation on an island, according to Jane Halton and others, we've fallen short in the second half of the game and we've seen policy responses swing through a cycle of panic and neglect. In consulting broadly across the health sector, almost everyone I've spoken to agrees that Australia would benefit from a royal commission into the health response to the pandemic and preparedness for future challenges. Various epidemiologists have highlighted that Australia did not learn enough from SARS and MERS, which were warning signs of what could happen with COVID-19. We routinely conduct military exercises and constantly prepare for the unlikely event of a physical invasion or terrorism incident, yet the chance of a global pandemic invading our shores has not been the subject of a preparedness exercise since 2008.

Thankfully, our geography gave us an advantage, and we were able to stave off and slow the arrival of COVID, giving us time to prepare, wait for the vaccine to be developed and dust off the plans. But the latest wave of omicron has shown that, despite a two-year head start, we still have not got the plan right. People are dying, we lack testing capacity, hospitals are stretched, and the aged-care system is failing to the point where we're talking of the military needing to be deployed to meet the shortfall in staff. It's for this reason that I am calling for a royal commission to be established immediately, with an interim report to be delivered as soon as possible, to ensure we identify the gaps in the current system, prioritise areas for improvement across the whole system to better prepare for the next variants and future pandemics, and prepare for the challenges of an ageing population and the associated increase in chronic disease. Such a commission should cover mental health services, which continue to struggle under the load of the pandemic and see surging call numbers.

In January, Lifeline hit its highest number of daily calls since the beginning of the pandemic at 3,600 calls across the network, double what was considered 'a big day' before COVID. Similarly, our hospital system has been stretched beyond capacity. It's not sustainable to continue at the pace we are. The pandemic has delayed the diagnosis and treatment of many other conditions and diseases, including cancer, and that's dangerous and negligent. It has also prolonged the pain and suffering of many who are waiting for elective surgery. General practices have been the backbone of our response to the pandemic, especially the vaccination program, yet they need a refresh to include a more holistic approach, including mental health as a key component of general practices, with professionals more closely integrated into the system. Rather than a volume based model, we actually need an outcome based model.

Finally, the aged-care sector is in crisis. There's no point in denying it. We knew this already, and we have the recommendations of the royal commission. It's there to implement. It needs to be implemented with even greater urgency.

We need a royal commission into the health sector as a whole that integrates federal and state responsibilities, primary care, delivery of services, acute care, intensive care, aged care, mental health and our pandemic response, in particular. We need to properly assess the management of our medical stockpile, supply chains and medical research investment to ensure preparedness. We must learn from the last two years. This is not about political pointscoring. This is not about looking at the overall response. I know the opposition are talking of JobKeeper and other things. This is actually talking about how we are going to make sure we save lives in the future and make sure we learn from the mistakes that have happened and understand properly what has worked and what hasn't worked.

We have been a divided nation, with different states going their different ways. This is not the best practice model. The pandemic is not over. We need to improve our ability to respond to the next wave and the one after that. We need to analyse what has worked and what hasn't. We need to increase transparency around health and medical advice and adopt a more consistent national approach. We need Australians to be able to have trust and faith in the medical advice of the chief health officers and to understand the distinction between the medical advice and the political decisions that governments need to make. We owe it to all Australians, and especially to our health workers, to make sure we have a sustainable health model.