11 April 2022

Royal commission needed on covid response

covid vaccine COVID-19 Political

The GP workforce was overwhelmed and needed support, says the Senate committee investigating the pandemic.

The Senate’s key covid committee has recognised some of the major shortcomings that left GPs hamstrung during the pandemic, in a final report welcomed by the RACGP.

Handed down on 7 April, the Senate Select Committee on Covid-19 report called for a royal commission to examine Australia’s covid response to inform preparedness for future covid waves and future pandemics.

It also recommended the government establish an Australian disease control centre – like the US CDC – to improve Australia’s pandemic preparedness, operational response capacity, and to streamline communication across all levels of government.

RACGP vice-president Dr Bruce Willett said the college welcomed the report, including a recommendation that the Australian government work with states and territories to ensure more consistent outcomes and less duplication and gaps in service delivery.

“The lack of consistency between the federal and state and territory governments caused challenges for GPs Australia-wide,” Dr Willett said.

The committee also recommended the Australian government “urgently review its pandemic planning to deliver immediate improvements, including a pandemic workforce strategy with an immediate focus on support and protection for health, aged care and other essential frontline staff”.

It acknowledged GPs had been “overwhelmed”, especially with the introduction of the vaccination program.

“The logistical challenge of getting each dose into the hands of a GP proved highly complex, contributing to the delayed rollout and leaving high-risk cohorts particularly vulnerable for longer,” the report said.

“Many GPs invested heavily in the capacity to store and administer large numbers of doses, but when clinics received only a fraction of the anticipated number of doses, countless patients were turned away.”

These supply and delivery problems, along with a failure to provide timely information to GPs on the arrival of orders of paediatric doses, undermined doctors’ ability to plan and take advanced bookings, stalling vaccinations for children. This prompted the RACGP to call on the government to “urgently repair” the rollout for children.

The supply of essential equipment during the pandemic also fell short.

Just 46 per cent of requests for PPE from the National Medical Stockpile by the aged care sector were approved between the onset of the pandemic and mid-August 2020. GPs had resorted to unsafely reusing PPE or purchasing equipment on the open market at inflated rates, the college said.

The report recommended the Australian government “consider appropriate future arrangements to enhance the performance of the National Medical Stockpile, including whether it should be housed and managed by an Australian Centre for Disease Control”.

“We also support the recommendation for an expert review of the national covid aged care plan, and what went wrong in aged care,” Dr Willett said. “GPs provide the majority of care in aged care, and we’ve long been saying that general practice needs to be included in aged care planning and responses.”

More support for priority populations would also be welcomed, including for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, older Australians, people living with disability and children, the RACGP said. The report recommended the government evaluate the effectiveness of plans for working with and responding appropriately to these populations.

“The recognition that more needs to be done to address health misinformation during public health campaigns and emergency responses is also very welcome – and something I’ve spoken out about strongly throughout the pandemic,” said Dr Willett. “The proliferation of health misinformation has been staggering and is a real risk to the health and wellbeing of our communities, as well as GPs who have to deal with it on the frontline.”

The government should undertake a review of the powers available under the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989 to address health misinformation during public health campaigns or emergency responses, the report said.

Independent Senator Rex Patrick, who first called for a covid royal commission in June 2021, said he also welcomed the recommendations of the report.

“The need for a comprehensive national investigation was absolutely clear then and it’s equally clear now,” Senator Patrick said. “I am calling on Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese to confirm whether they support this recommendation and whether they will commit to establishing a royal commission.”

Some independent senators and MPs from both sides of the House also supported a royal commission, Senator Patrick said.

Senate Select Committee on Covid-19 final report