‘Invest in public health – it pays extraordinary dividends’, PHAA tells NSW COVID-19 inquiry

Terry Slevin – PHAA CEO


I’ll be the first to admit I agreed to participate in yesterday’s inquiry into the NSW Government’s response with some hesitancy. Parliamentary inquiries can be useful exercises in exploring what’s happened; what’s worked; what hasn’t; and what could – and should – have been done differently. They’re also a classic platform for party partisan ‘gotcha moments’. A place to heighten the blame game, and for political oppositions these inquiries are a perfect opportunity to score serious political points, or even land a political scalp.

Against that context, and the release of the sombre news earlier in the day of a record number of new daily COVID-19 cases in NSW, I joined eminent microbiologist and infectious diseases physician, Professor Peter Collignon and leading epidemiologist, Professor Tony Blakely, for a 90-minute zoom session with the NSW Legislative Council’s Public Accountability Committee.

Looking back and reflecting on the session, I genuinely believe it was a worthwhile exercise, for a number of reasons.

Yes, as expected, there were pointed questions about whether the NSW Government had locked down early enough, and hard enough, and whether the populous of our largest city had been let down by their elected (and unelected) officials.

But thankfully, the inquiry also provided scope for a much broader discussion, in my thinking even bigger picture stuff, about the current status of our public health system and how well supported it has been by governments of all political stripes over the past decade or two.

I was pleased to make, what I believe are several important points:

  • There’s no government in the world, let alone in Australia, which has got everything right in how they’ve responded to the pandemic. But most governments have done their very best;
  • Putting Australia’s response into context, we’ve done very well compared to the rest of the world;
  • We owe an enormous debt of gratitude for the extraordinary response of the many thousands of public health workers who’ve gone above and beyond now for more than 18 months in managing the pandemic; and
  • The virus continues to evolve, mutate and change, and every day experts, including public health workers, are being asked to predict what comes next and how we should prepare to respond; and to be honest we don’t know. Can you imagine the pressure these people are under right now?

While the inquiry’s brief was to look back at the management of the pandemic to date, I was pleased to be able to cast a glance over the horizon, and look to the future. I implored the politicians involved in the inquiry to focus less on the blame game and instead look at how we might all deal with the next big health crisis once we’ve dealt with this one.

I reminded the inquiry that in 2020, during Australia’s deadly first pandemic wave, National Cabinet twice committed to greater investment to expand the public health workforce. This followed many, many years of inconsistent investment and in some cases disinvestment in public health capacity and infrastructure and pleas from our organisation and others which continually fell on deaf ears. Sadly, despite what I believed were binding decisions in National Cabinet, there’s been no jurisdiction in any budget which has made sustained increased funding commitments to the public health workforce since the health emergency began. That to me is bewildering, mystifying and frankly shockingly unacceptable.

I asked the politicians when they’re thinking about framing their next budget, and the following one, in fact every time they put a budget together, to ask themselves where is the funding for public health. Is it really enough? Will the levels of investment serve Australia well as we face ever-increasing health challenges, the result of an ageing population, a worsening climate crisis and what are sure to be more pandemics?

‘Invest in public health – it pays extraordinary dividends,’ I said. And the evidence well supports that proposition.

I also flagged the need for a stronger, national approach to deal with times like this. Be it a pandemic or the multiple chronic disease tsunamis still to come. The past 18 months has shown that while the federated model has its strengths, it’s also revealed the fractured, state against state approach is as divisive in fighting pandemics as it is on the footy field. There is now a serious and growing need for a National Centre for Disease Control in Australia to provide truly national co-ordination and leadership at these most challenging of times.

I was grateful the Chair of the parliamentary inquiry, David Shoebridge, took a moment to express his gratitude to the public health profession for their outstanding contribution in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

I know I’m a little biased, but I went further, reminding the inquiry that our entire nation owed our incredibly dedicated and under-resourced public health workforce a huge debt of gratitude. These people, you people, PHAA members often work over two shifts, seven days a week, taking no holidays during the pandemic, often isolated and in lockdown yourselves, and often getting berated about decisions others are making because frankly everybody’s scared about the pandemic.

‘I ask you as politicians, to advocate for public health. I ask you to take up the cudgels for public health, and long beyond the duration of this pandemic.’


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