The AHPPC is comprised of all state and territory chief health officers and is chaired by the federal chief medical officer. It has issued 64 statements on COVID-19 since January 29, but has held a total of 187 meetings in relation to the pandemic.
Senator Gallagher sought access not just to the agreed public statements, but to minutes of meetings, pointing to the example set by Britain’s equivalent committee, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.
In May, after weeks of pressure, the UK Government Office of Science began publishing the minutes of SAGE meetings on COVID-19, though sometimes publication is delayed.
Britain’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said it was “important that people understand the science relating to COVID-19 and the scientific advice that SAGE have provided”, while UK chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said “openness and transparency around this disease is a social imperative”.
Senator Gallagher wrote to the federal Health Department on August 18, seeking a review of its decision to reject her June 25 freedom of information request for “minutes of all meetings of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee held since January this year”.
She has since reduced the scope of this request to cover minutes from January 19 through to March 31, when there was a flurry of decision-making around international border closures, school closures, partial business restrictions and internal lockdowns.
Giving evidence before the COVID-19 select committee on August 14, federal Health Department boss Brendan Murphy (who chaired the AHPPC until recently) told Senator Gallagher: “We were very, very concerned to have consistent health advice that all governments would sign up to.”
Professor Murphy said the AHPPC, which predates the pandemic, had been “formally constituted” as a sub-committee of the national cabinet for the duration of the pandemic, and “any decision around further transparency would require engagement with the national cabinet”.
Senator Gallagher said there had clearly been disagreements around the table, on handling schools, mask usage, and borders, and “we don’t have any oversight of … what goes into the sausage that comes out”.
“There are [also] great health minds that sit outside this forum, and I think if there is a contested issue, then others should be invited to join that discussion,” she said.
A spokesman for federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said: “The frank and fearless expert medical advice from the AHPPC has served Australia well during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Since the National Cabinet for Australia’s Coronavirus Response was established [on March 13], the AHPPC has assumed the role of a subcommittee of the national cabinet and its deliberations are appropriately treated as cabinet-in-confidence consistent with the long standing bi-partisan approach to the deliberations of cabinet.”
Deborah Snow is a senior writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.