Published: 09 July 2020

Legislative Council Wednesday 24 June, 2020

Ms FORREST (Murchison) - Mr President, I move -

That the Legislative Council supports the establishment of a comprehensive inquiry conducted by suitably qualified and independent experts into the contributing factors which led to the recent COVID-19 outbreak in North West Tasmania.

Mr President, this will a fairly brief contribution for a number of factors, one of which is the lateness of the hour, but also the fact I was tuned in to question time in the other place this morning and Mr Tucker asked a Dorothy Dixer. I am surprised the member for Braddon, Mrs Rylah, was not given the opportunity to ask for an update on the progress with this independent inquiry.

I listened to the answer and reckon the Leader will have to read that answer, because it provides pretty much all the comments around this motion. However, I am pleased to see it being progressed. It is interesting it has happened today when this motion was coming on at the same time. Interesting timing, I am sure.

Mr President, in speaking to this motion briefly, it is important there is a fully independent inquiry into the outbreak at the North West Regional Hospital that also impacted the North West Private Hospital. Without that outbreak, Tasmania would have had extremely low numbers. Yes, they stem back to the Ruby Princess and the passengers who arrived back in Tasmania and ended up at the North West Regional Hospital due to the nature of their illness related to COVID-19 and it went from there. In many ways it was good it occurred because it made us realise it is a serious matter. Had it not happened, we might have been a little complacent but it did happen and, unfortunately, it happened in one of our hospitals.

At the time I commended the Premier - and I continue to commend him - for taking the courageous action to take over the North West Private Hospital first and then shut down both hospitals. An unprecedented thing to do when you need hospitals in a pandemic. It was difficult decision, but it was the right decision. It is important we learn from these circumstances. I know we have had the Public Health investigation that was done at a point in time and we gleaned some facts from it. That report is publicly available; it has been discussed and provides a body of evidence the independent inquiry will also consider.

As was found by the Public Health inquiry, this was a multifactorial occurrence. A number of factors contributed to the outbreak and spread. I firmly believe it will not be just one person's responsibility. It is a multiple responsibility, and something new in the country and the state. It takes time to appreciate sometimes how quickly and significantly dangerous these viruses can be.

My concern was around the suitability of the investigators. It is important for the Legislative Council to make a strong statement about the support for an independent inquiry of this nature. I know the people leading the inquiry. From the answer provided downstairs this morning, Greg Melick is going to lead the inquiry. He is not an epidemiologist; I believe he is in workplace safety, but I do not think he is an epidemiologist or an infection control specialist. I could be wrong on that, but I expect others who have been engaged to support him on the panel will have those requisite skills. That is a really important aspect because they are people who know the right questions to ask. If the answers being told may be a little bit less than complete, they will then know where to dig and which rabbit burrows to go down and which ones to leave alone because they are just going to go nowhere.

I suggested when I was asked in the media about this some time ago what my views were. There was some discussion about having a parliamentary inquiry. At the time when that was being suggested by others, I did not particularly support this. I supported an independent approach, preferably from people from outside the state. Tasmania is very small and if you engage people who have worked or are currently working in this area, particularly in the health space, it is difficult to have that separation. I believe that is what the member has made a decision around. The challenge is you cannot have people coming particularly at the moment, from Victoria or New South Wales where they have still ongoing active and new cases every day, to be travelling to and fro and conducting an inquiry. That was one of the reasons it has not commenced already.

The other point I am particularly concerned about, and I was pleased to hear some comments on this in answer to Mr Tucker's question this morning, was the protection for witnesses. Perhaps this sounds a little over the top - witnesses needing protection, but they do. The healthcare workers in this hospital need to be assured they can turn up and tell their story without fear or favour. Whistleblowers are not treated well in this state. There are people who have felt they have not been believed even when they have told their stories. I have heard from one side to the other stories about access and availability of personal protective equipment - PPE - and about whose responsibility that was and all those sorts of things.

It is really important that witnesses, particularly when they are state servants - which the majority of them will be, either by way of being a nursing staff member, a medical professional, a member of the cleaning staff, catering staff, the medical orderlies whoever, because they are all involved in this - are provided with protection. There should be no threat to their ongoing employment or career advancement opportunities through their participation in such an inquiry.

There was some comment made by the Premier downstairs this morning about that and is also now on the public record, which is helpful. The Leader may address her mind to that.

Another pleasing point, one I have been really strong on, is the need for public release of the report. The Premier this morning committed to that. Maybe he has been reading my mail or has been listening to me. I have spoken publicly about the importance of this a number of times. I am really glad those measures are getting through because these things matter to my community. My community was at the heart of this. We were the ones locked down harder than anybody else. We were the ones who bore the brunt of some of the hate and vitriol directed at the health professionals and even some of the people with COVID-19. It was a very tough time. The enormous toll on the mental health and wellbeing of many of these people is significant and will be ongoing. I am still talking to some of the nursing staff and others who were deeply impacted by what occurred around this time.

It is important protection is there for the witnesses. There is a public release of the report so we can all learn from it because we will have another pandemic one day. This one is not over yet either. There will be another, whether it will be as bad as this, worse than this, it could quite possibly be worse.

We have done a good job in Tasmania and we have done a good job in Australia. You do not have to look too far over the water to see that, but we cannot afford to take our eyes off the ball. This will help provide a greater body of evidence done in a completely independent, arms-length way. Support for this motion from this House will add to that strong public statement. This is a matter of importance, and it needs to be done properly.

I urge members to support the motion.

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