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Postcode lockdowns necessitate a broader inquiry

The opportunity should not be missed to thoroughly investigate why Victoria faces such a predicament so at odds with experiences elsewhere across the country.

The hotel quarantine program has been a debacle. But the Premier took the right step this week to signal that he will ask a former judge to conduct an inquiry into the number of cases that have emerged out of that program based on genomic testing underpinning advice from the Chief Health Officer of a link between infection control breaches and the number of cases over May and June.

A drive-through testing station in the Melbourne lockdown suburb of Fawkner.

A drive-through testing station in the Melbourne lockdown suburb of Fawkner.Credit:Justin McManus

It would be appropriate, for example, for such an inquiry to consider why security guards, who are untrained to handle a hotel quarantine program of this nature, were engaged to do so. But a broader and independent inquiry into the entire second wave is wholly justified and necessary.

There is a range of matters that it should investigate, including whether testing was comprehensive and available to those communities most at risk early enough. Were CALD (culturally and linguistically diverse) communities engaged sufficiently, beyond just social media graphics and advertising across ethnic media platforms in several languages?

This pandemic has also exposed capability issues across a number of Victorian agencies that seem to be missing the operational presence to make a difference on the ground for the communities and constituencies they are there to serve.

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While the government is at it, a former judge could use the co-operation of other disciplines such as an epidemiology, among others, to assist with such an inquiry into the broader second wave. In Victoria, governments have at their disposal several options as to what kind of inquiry they can institute into matters such as this. At the highest level, a royal commission can be used, although such a commission is not necessary in these circumstances.

But a broader board of inquiry? That would be the most appropriate body and could combine a range of specialties under the leadership of the former judge the Premier might have in mind.

An obvious argument against a comprehensive inquiry at this stage is that we’re in the middle of the pandemic.

This is a fair point. We need to consider, however, that COVID-19 is not going anywhere fast.

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It’s going to be with us for a long time and, as much as we should be doing our share to suppress transmission, the more important longer term objective is likely to be: just how are we going to live with this virus in the absence of a vaccine in a way that minimises transmission and promotes public health and wellbeing?

In other words, is there a better time than the present?

Postcode lockdowns are like so many other features of this pandemic: testing us in ways we haven’t experienced previously.

Those living in affected postcodes and those wanting to enter those same areas face enormous personal challenges. For those of us not living in affected areas, we have an obligation to remain vigilant and not succumb to complacency.

Questions around the enforceability of individual testing are also raising complex and serious questions under Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.

Interstate barriers and parochialism, that too many leaders want to celebrate, are further restricting our basic freedom of movement around the country in circumstances where the legitimacy of such barriers is open to fierce debate.

Even the enforcement policy of Victoria Police poses challenges and tests. Why are some people merely warned that they may be fined while others are actually fined?

Most importantly, the prospect of further outbreaks and evidence of divergence among federal and state political leaders (along with their respective chief health officers) will stress-test the resilience and robustness of the national cabinet itself.

It’s clear now that there is a pattern of testy rhetoric that precedes meetings of national cabinet that has, despite this, yielded a good deal of consensus over recent months. We can only hope that continues and that diverging opinions will not stymie its ability to deliver ongoing benefits as we manage our way through this crisis.

Postcode lockdowns seem so arbitrary. But unless we all take it as seriously as those inside affected zones, we risk the very expansion of lockdowns we all want to avoid.

John Pesutto is a Senior Fellow at the School of Government at Melbourne University, a panellist on ABC Melbourne’s The Party Line and was Victoria’s Shadow Attorney General from 2014 to 2018.

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