Inquiry into the Victorian Government’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic


Mr D O’BRIEN (Gippsland South) (10:21): Thank you, Acting Speaker Blandthorn. It is good to have you in the chair as I rise to speak on the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee’s inquiry into the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic last year. I want to touch on some of the elements that were addressed in the inquiry’s report, in particular that we are back here again. It feels very much like groundhog day at the moment. We have more hotel quarantine breaches. We have lockdowns again. I heard the member for Broadmeadows just saying we are on the verge of coming out. I hope he is right—and he might like to share any inside information he has. I am sure that he gets told just at the same time as it gets dropped to the Herald Sun and the Age.

But we have got hotel quarantine breaches. We have got lockdown. We have got business and economic and social impacts right across the board, and I am very frustrated at many of the issues that the committee looked at last year when we were learning, admittedly, about how to handle a pandemic and how to handle this particular COVID-19 issue—but it does not seem that many of those lessons have been learned. My constituents cannot believe we are here again, particularly in regional Victoria—and I will come to the health issues shortly. But the impacts on our local communities are massive and I fear are not fully understood by some of the people making the decisions.

Just a couple of examples from my electorate: I have got a large accommodation business in my home town of Sale. They estimate they have lost $100 000 in bookings just for the month of June from a one-week lockdown, from the subsequent fact that on the Queen’s Birthday holiday they will not be open for Melbourne visitors and from the flow-on effects. I have got Bob from the Yarra Valley who runs a very small, niche boutique accommodation and retreat-type business—$6000 wiped from his bookings for the first weekend of the lockdown. That will be probably doubled, if not more again, with the Queen’s Birthday lockdown as well. And then there are the ongoing impacts of people being reluctant to make bookings in the event that there is a further outbreak somewhere down the track.

As we stand here today, on Wednesday, we have no cases. There have been no cases in regional Victoria. There are currently no exposure sites, and of the exposure sites that were listed over two weeks ago there has not been a single case come from them. I will never say ‘no risk’, but there is very, very little and very negligible risk—so we should be open in regional Victoria. I mention that in the government’s budget papers only released a couple of weeks ago, under ‘Strategy and Outlook’, budget paper 2, it talks about how the budget is framed and what the risks in the out years are, and it talks about the fact that the budget has factored in localised, short-term restrictions. What we have not seen is localised and short-term restrictions. We have again seen this state government adopt blanket statewide restrictions that have hurt people in regional Victoria unnecessarily.

I go on with some of those issues. Dance schools—once again, as they were last year, even though regional Victoria has been opened up they have remained closed, along with gyms and indoor swim schools. And of course hospitality is still significantly restricted. I spoke to Mel from In-Step Dance School in Sale the other day. In the February lockdown, short as it was, they had 15 trial students that they lost—that never came back. They had another 16 families who would not book because they decided ‘Well, we can’t be sure that we’re going to get through this term’, so they are not going to commit to the whole term. I had the same story the other day from Jenny and Holly at Leaps and Bounds and Lisa Pellin at Lisa Pellin Dancers in Leongatha. These are stories repeated across all of those industries, and hospitality of course too, which is open but severely limited—capped at 50, no matter how big and how many rooms you have. These are the issues the committee looked at last year that we highlighted were problems in the government’s handling, and they have not been addressed.

Yes, it is a pandemic, but I think some making decisions have actually lost sight of the flow-on impacts, particularly the other health impacts—from stopping elective surgery to the delay in people going to GPs, and we saw that prior to this lockdown in the strain on the health system. This is not what we need. We actually need a better system. We need lockdowns as a last resort, not as the first; we need the lockdowns only based on publicly released health advice; we need them to be proportionate; we need them to be targeted, not blanket; and we need them lifted immediately once less damaging measures can be implemented.

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