Victorian Liberal Senator Sarah Henderson says the Albanese Government’s refusal to conduct a proper inquiry into school closures and other COVID-19 decisions made unilaterally by the States and Territories “fails every Australian family”.
“Labor’s ‘Clayton’s inquiry’ puts the Prime Minister’s political interests ahead of Australia’s national interest,” Senator Henderson said in a statement.
“The closure of schools which caused such damage to young Australians, particularly in Victoria, must be front and centre of any inquiry.”
Henderson said Victorian families, who endured the longest lockdown of any city in the world, continue to suffer from the consequences of the school closures, saying these led to “widespread harm to the learning, development and mental health of children”.
“At the beginning of the pandemic in Australia, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, supported by the Coalition Government, advised that schools were safe and should remain open,” she said.
In October 2022, the independent Fault Lines report – an independent review into Australia’s response to COVID-19 – recommended that schools should have stayed open.
“Schools should have stayed open. For children and parents [particularly women], we failed to get the balance right between protecting health and imposing long-term costs on education, mental health, the economy and workforce outcomes,” the review said.
Senator Henderson said it is critical that Australians learn the lessons of the pandemic.
“Any inquiry without proper powers to engage the States is nothing more than an anti-Coalition witch hunt.”
Speaking at a press conference in Adelaide on Monday, Mark Butler, Minister for Health and Aged Care said the terms of reference in the Inquiry includes a call for a panel of experts to investigate all of the health response measures during Covid-19.
“That covers social distancing arrangements, density requirements, school closures, business closures, border closures, lockdowns,” Butler said. “[The Inquiry covers] all of those things that were put in place at the time by state governments managing an emergency.”
Butler said he is also aware of concerns about whether or not the mental health impacts would be in scope for the Inquiry, assuring “Of course they will be”.
“The Prime Minister and I have made it clear the purpose of this Inquiry is to set up next time – because there will be a next time – in the best possible way and that it would be extraordinary not to have an Inquiry, given the distress and the dislocation and the death that our country – along with every other country on the planet – has faced,” he said.
“We have deliberately put in place [Robyn Kruk] as the Chair of this Inquiry, an esteemed public servant whom people should note, I appointed as the inaugural Chief Executive Officer of the National Mental Health Commission more than a decade ago.”
Butler said Kruk will be “very keen to understand the psychological and mental health impacts of this pandemic on our community”.
“It would be extraordinary to think otherwise.”
The Educator has contacted the office of the Federal Education Minister for comment.