Considering what could go wrong during a pandemic years before the coronavirus hit Australian shores has helped the Department of Home Affairs respond to the challenges of COVID-19, according to department secretary Mike Pezzullo.
Appearing on Sky News on Tuesday, Pezzullo recounted how past pandemic preparedness exercises have contributed to Australia’s success in managing COVID-19.
“You’ve heard other colleagues, including the former secretary of Health, Jane Halton, talk about the lessons that they learned from the SARS pandemic, or the potential pandemic MERS, Ebola, and the efforts that were put in place in the 2000s to stand up a very strong public health response capability, and that’s borne out in this pandemic,” he said.
“What the Department of Home Affairs did when [former Prime Minister Malcolm] Turnbull first directed its creation in the middle of 2017 — and we opened our doors in December of ’17 — is that we looked at the non-health factors that we’d have to put in place as part of a pandemic response.
“And that’s also stood us in very good stead, whether it’s to do with supermarkets, the resupply of supermarkets and supply chains, working with telcos to ensure that there’d be continuity of business and schooling. A lot of that work was done in the background.”
He referred to Department of Health secretary and former chief medical officer Brendan Murphy, who says that “you can never plan precisely”.
“I absolutely agree with him. It’s a discipline of doing the planning rather than having very specific prescriptive plans, but it’s that planning work that really stands you in good stead in these sorts of eventualities,” Pezzullo said.
Over the past year, Pezzullo has learned that while having a strong health response is a key factor to dealing with a pandemic, it’s not the sole factor. Other areas such as schooling, telecommunications, and connectivity also need to be managed, and society must be pulled together, like during a war.
“We don’t mobilise the whole of society to respond to something outside of a war, and this has required national mobilisation. So that’s certainly, for my department and for me personally, the biggest take out is national mobilisation.”
While the commonwealth is responsible for quarantine under the constitution, the national cabinet agreed that the states and territories would manage their own quarantine systems back in March 2020.
But the federal government has been facing increased pressure to take responsibility for quarantine in recent weeks, after COVID-19 outbreaks were linked to hotel quarantine in several states.
When asked whether he has advised the commonwealth to take responsibility for hotel quarantine systems in Australia, Pezzullo remained tightlipped.
“The most important thing in giving advice is to keep it confidential because it’s very important that ministers can rely upon the confidence of that advice,” he told Sky News.
“Suffice to say we’ve certainly provided, across both the commonwealth, state, and territory public services, full and frank and fearless no doubt advice, and I’m sure that my colleagues in the states have done the same thing. And then in the end it’s for ministers and ultimately the prime minister and the first ministers on the national cabinet to make a decision.”
He noted that regardless of whether the quarantine system was run by the federal government or the states, success of Australia’s pandemic response would always require teamwork from both levels.
“The one thing I will say from an operational point of view and an administrative point of view, whichever way you decide to run a quarantine activity in a federation, it has to always resolve down to teamwork,” he said.
“Because of course the international border is controlled at the federal level … but of course public health is a state response. So you couldn’t possibly countenance a situation where people were flooding into the country because you had a border setting that was very open, but then you had very restrictive state public health orders that then prevented the movement of those persons who arrived from overseas. So, in a federation, it’s got to be teamwork.”