Australian Covid inquiry to scrutinise states but politicians unlikely to face public hearings, chief says | Health

The head of the federal Covid inquiry says the probe will be “incredibly broad” and include a focus on how state and commonwealth governments interacted, saying premiers have already been contacted to participate and rebuffing criticisms that state government decisions would not be examined.

But Robyn Kruk AO, the experienced public servant tasked with chairing the year-long inquiry, said she did not plan for the process to be “adversarial”, indicating politicians and officials would be engaged for interviews and roundtable meetings rather than public inquisitions.

“I smile when people say the terms of reference are not broad. It is incredibly broad, an incredibly complex jigsaw, and it’s focused on the interface between the states and the commonwealth and community partners,” Kruk told Guardian Australia.

“It’d be hard to do that in a highly legalistic, adversarial environment.”

Kruk, a former director general of the New South Wales health department and secretary of the federal environment department, will chair the inquiry alongside panel members epidemiologist Prof Catherine Bennett and health economist Dr Angela Jackson.

The inquiry will investigate Australia’s response to the pandemic, with a focus on the role of the commonwealth government and the responsibilities of states and territories. It will also look at national cabinet and the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee of health experts, vaccination policies, health supports, border closures and financial supports.

A new detail on the inquiry’s website said it would also consider “how evidence informed decisions regarding interventions, such as lockdowns”.

The inquiry called for submissions and evidence on Monday, but Kruk said panel members began their work “immediately” after being tasked in September. She said she had already met with all state and territory governments, as well as numerous secretaries of commonwealth departments and several former state premiers.

Despite controversy erupting over the terms of reference specifically stating that “actions taken unilaterally by state and territory governments” were not in the inquiry’s scope, Kruk said she was happy with how the states had already engaged with the inquiry.

“I’ve met with all the states and territories, and the heads of central agencies, to start the process immediately to address the perception the states are reluctant – because that’s not the case,” she said.

“We’ve got to ensure this process looks at the incident as a whole. The early engagement and commitment from states and territories was vital.”

Kruk’s panel will examine previous inquiries into Covid, including those that looked at the Ruby Princess cruise ship, the Victorian hotel quarantine system, auditor general reports, and the NSW Health department’s response to the pandemic, which Kruk chaired in 2022.

She said state governments, industry groups, aged care facilities and others had conducted inquiries into their own actions, but those interactions with commonwealth agencies was “a missing piece or less publicly understood role”.

Kruk nominated workforce issues around Covid isolation and communication around the need or rationale for lockdowns as key parts of the inquiry.

“We want to get a very good understanding about public expectations, what people found most difficult about lockdowns, and what was significant for them,” she said.

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“What information did they value the most, and how was that trust developed? That aspect was really hard, and we’ll go to a number of sources.”

Kruk said she had spoken with former state leaders willing to talk to the inquiry, as well as engaging federal ministers and other central decision-makers such as chief health officers.

She said the inquiry would focus on health and non-health responses, such as mental health supports and government payments, but that it was unlikely Australians would see former premiers or ministers giving evidence in parliamentary-style committee hearings, a format she said had “limitations”.

“I’m avoiding using the word[s] ‘public hearings’ because of how adversarial it sounds. We’re already in receipt of so much information from people: from the day of the announcement, people were coming forward to ask for time with the inquiry, some people who don’t have those roles today but want their experience on the table,” Kruk said.

Instead, she said the inquiry would more likely look to structured interviews or discussions with key players to understand why decisions were made and if processes could be improved.

“There’s not a single source of truth in this area. There were a number of people holding these roles, but also from an operational perspective it was very complex.”

While examining past decisions, Kruk said, the inquiry’s eye would be on lessons for the future.

“We have to assume the next incident will be different and more complex … We need a complex series of discussions to make sure our system is as prepared as it can be for those circumstances,” she said.

“There’s always a risk to just look backwards and re-prosecute the previous war. We’ve got to look at the past and learn what will be different in future, how resilient our systems are to deal with what’s next.”

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