PUBLIC ACCOUNTS AND ESTIMATES COMMITTEE (PAEC)
Mr D O’BRIEN (Gippsland South)
I wish to make comment on the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee report on the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, of which there have been two—an interim and then a further report. As a member of the committee I can advise the house that we have never formally ended this inquiry, keeping our options open to undertake further hearings and reporting as the pandemic progresses.
One of the consistent issues through the report and since of course has been lockdowns and the need for them, their application and the consistency of rules around restrictions on movement.
The great frustration for many of my constituents in Gippsland, and indeed all of regional Victoria, has been the application of statewide lockdowns by the government despite many parts of the state being unaffected by COVID cases or exposure. Indeed there remain local government areas of the state that have never had a positive COVID case, yet they have been locked down with the rest of us.
The Nationals have been calling for nearly 12 months for targeted lockdowns only for those areas that are directly affected by COVID outbreaks. It makes no sense to lock down Mildura and Mallacoota when there is an outbreak in Broadmeadows.
Indeed it has been regularly remarked by people in my electorate how unlikely it would be that Melbourne would be plunged into lockdown for an outbreak in Mildura or Mallacoota. I concur.
Our position on this is in fact backed by the Public Health and Wellbeing Act, which specifies that any action to protect public health should be ‘proportionate’ to the risk. We believe that applies directly to lockdowns being statewide.
Clearly with a virus as contagious as COVID-19, and especially the delta variant, there will be a risk of transmission as people move about in regional areas and to and from the city. But that risk must be balanced against the significant cost of lockdowns, both to the economy and to the social fabric of our communities, to children’s schooling, and to the mental health and overall wellbeing of Victorians.
Just today we had research released by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute which showed COVID in children, including the delta variant, is rarely serious and most children have no or only mild symptoms, similar to a cold.
It finds the main risks to them are indirect effects on mental health and education which are ‘worsened by continued lockdowns and school closures’.
So I am pleased that at long last, the Labor government has listened. Just two weeks ago the Premier barked at us that ‘localised lockdowns don’t work’ and he wouldn’t be doing them because they put all regional Victorians at risk. This is despite previous decisions to separate Melbourne and regional Victoria—quite rightly.
Shortly afterwards he kept Shepparton under lockdown and freed the rest of regional Victoria and today he has announced a localised lockdown to deal with an outbreak in Ballarat. The days of statewide lockdowns for localised outbreaks appear to be over—hallelujah!
I am thankful that the government has at last seen the light and is not punishing all of us for the outbreaks only affecting a few. The obsession with COVID zero is over too, a welcome development.
The next challenge is to stick to the national cabinet plan. As we approach 70 and then 80 per cent vaccination levels, lockdowns must be put behind us.
There is a long way to go and some actions, such as mask wearing indoors and localised responses, may still be needed.
But once we hit that 80 per cent protection level, we need to move on and begin living with this virus, a virus that is going nowhere.