Who’s in control of Australia’s response to coronavirus? Part 2: Operational responses

For part 1 of this post, click here.

One reason why there is a measure of confusion about operational control during an outbreak of disease with pandemic potential is because of the different functions and responsibilities of the Commonwealth, and the States within a federation.

For example, even if the (modest) number of cases meant that an outbreak could be comfortably handled as a jurisdictional health challenge, the fact remains that early cases are likely to be imported into Australia, and border control is a Commonwealth responsibility (see eg the “National CD Plan”, pp 8-12).

Similarly, sharing information with WHO about cases of covid-19 (a declared public health emergency of international concern) is both an obligation under the International Health Regulations and a Commonwealth function, via the National Focal Point (as to which see National Health Security Act 2007 (Cth) s 10).

It might be helpful to think about the escalation of government responses to a disease outbreak in terms of the following stages:

Although an outbreak may begin as a jurisdictional health challenge, the Commonwealth may become involved in coordinating and supporting the State/Territory response where there are “Communicable Disease Incidents of National Significance”.

As shown below, Commonwealth involvement may involve an escalation of governance arrangements in order to ensure a coordinated health sector response, or, in addition, to ensure a broader national response extending beyond the health sector requiring leadership at the highest political levels.  This is shown below.

[Source: Emergency Response Plan for Communicable Disease Incidents of National Significance: National Arrangements (“National CD Plan”) p 4]

 

A national health sector emergency

The distinctions set out above help us to understand the significance of the Australian Health Sector Emergency Response Plan for Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), published on 18 February.

The “Coronavirus Emergency Response Plan” signals the existence of a national health sector emergency, based on anticipation of the potential for significant cases of community transmission to put pressure on State and Territory health systems.

The Prime Minister announced the implementation of the “Coronavirus Emergency Response Plan” on 27 February, triggered by advice that the world would shortly enter the pandemic phase of covid-19.

The Plan explains the division of responsibilities between the Australian government, and the States and Territories, with respect to planning, surveillance, clinical services, public health measures, research and planning, and communication.

The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, which comprises State and Territory Chief Health Officers and is chaired by the Australian Chief Medical Officer, is the key decision-making committee, within the health bureaucracy, for health emergencies.  It is now meeting virtually daily and its statements on covid-19 are shown here.

In common with other plans, the Coronavirus Emergency Response Plan conceptualises the management of hazards in terms of a cycle of activities focused on: Prevention; Preparedness; Response; and Recovery.

Australia is currently in the response phase to the coronavirus (obviously).  This phase is usually divided into three further stages:

  • standby
  • action: initial action, and targeted action
  • stand down

The Plan identifies three scenarios: where clinical severity is low, moderate and high.  It also points out that progress through the stages above (eg from Initial action to Targeted action) is independent of “activation of whole-of-government or jurisdictional plans”.

 

An all-of-government response to a national health emergency

By 27 February, the day on which the Coronavirus Emergency Response Plan activated a nationally-coordinated health sector response, an all-of-government response to coronavirus was also emerging, through the National Security Committee and the Council of Australian Governments (COAG).

The Prime Minister explained the role that the Border Force Commissioner, and the Ministers for Education, Home Affairs and Treasury were taking in strengthening the national response.

The Health Minister explained that the focus of the national response was moving from containment to planning for a significant increase in cases of community transmission – by focusing on the sufficiency of the national medical stockpile and personal protective equipment, and the capacity of health personnel to manage a surge in cases and hospital admissions.

On 5 March, the Prime Minister revealed that the Australian Government had activated the National Coordination Mechanism, through the Department of Home Affairs: its role was to work with the states and territories to “co-ordinate the whole of government responses to issues outside the direct health management of COVID-19”.

Finance ministries now sit at the centre of Australia’s response to the coronavirus, attempting to mitigate the impact of sharp reductions in economic activity, spending and consumer confidence with first federal, and now state/territory stimulus packages.

The Commonwealth has also agreed to share the additional costs incurred by States and Territories in diagnosing and treating coronavirus patients, on a 50/50 basis.  (This National Partnership Agreement would operate from 21 January – the date that coronavirus became a Listed Human Disease under federal biosecurity laws).

The “National CD Plan”, which underlies these all-of-government efforts, was published in May 2018 and illustrates just how complex the response to “communicable disease incidents of national significance” really is.

On 13 March, the Prime Minister announced a “new National Cabinet, made up of the Prime Minister, Premiers and Chief Ministers” that will “meet at least weekly to address the country’s response to the coronavirus, COVID-19”.

This new cabinet will be advised by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (addressing health sector issues), and the National Coordination Mechanism convened by Home Affairs (addressing issues beyond the health sector).

Within the space of a few weeks, human coronavirus has gone from being a jurisdictional health challenge to precipitating new, creative cabinet structures to address its multi-sector impacts.

Who’s in control of Australia’s response to covid-19?  Currently, a “war cabinet” comprising the leaders of all Australian governments.

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