New report highlights impact of NSW Government COVID-19 response

22 Mar 2021

A NSW Ombudsman report highlights the impacts on individuals of measures taken by the NSW Government to combat COVID-19, especially for vulnerable members of the community and those who have been subject to quarantine.

Tabled in NSW Parliament today, 2020 hindsight: the first 12 months of the COVID-19 pandemic also highlights the need for effective complaint handling and oversight to be designed into any government crisis response.

In the 12 months from the first Australian COVID case on 25 January 2020, the NSW Ombudsman received over 900 contacts from individuals wishing to raise complaints or concerns about their treatment or experience of the NSW government’s pandemic measures.

“Everyone has been impacted in some way, but not everyone has been impacted in the same way or to the same extent,” said the Acting NSW Ombudsman, Paul Miller. “Some groups have been more vulnerable both to the disease itself and to government actions taken to contain it. The different and particular experiences of groups and individuals are at the heart of this report.”

Most of the complaints related to the conditions of mandatory hotel quarantine, including hotel facilities, food options and quarantine exemption requests.

The Ombudsman’s report notes that many of those who raised concerns with his office were at pains to point out that they did not object generally to the measures imposed by the Government.

“It is widely recognised that, certainly by international standards, the public health response to the pandemic has been highly effective,” said Mr Miller. “We acknowledge and thank the good work of those responsible for crisis planning and implementation.”

“However, the crisis response also involved new and extraordinary measures that involved significant incursions on individual rights, were taken with limited Parliamentary scrutiny, and were implemented with rapid speed and little or no prior community consultation,” Mr Miller added. “Such action was no doubt necessary to meet the public health challenge. But in such circumstances, effective independent oversight and external complaint avenues become even more critical”.

The report draws attention to the benefits of effective complaint handling during crises. As well as helping to ensure accountability and fair treatment, complaints provide on-the-ground intelligence to identify risks before they escalate.

The report notes that the current oversight and complaint handling system is not ideally suited to crises of this nature and magnitude.

“The response to COVID-19 involves multiple agencies across multiple layers of government (state and federal), working sometimes in close partnership, sometimes in loose alignment, and sometimes separately,” Mr Miller said. “In contrast, oversight and complaint avenues are highly fragmented, and it can be extremely difficult for the public to navigate their way to the right body who can resolve their complaint quickly and effectively.”

For those in hotel quarantine, for example, there is no single independent oversight body with which people can raise a concern or complaint. If the issue relates to the provision of health services, NSW Police Force decisions or activities, or the conduct of other Government agencies the complaint may need to be directed to the Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC), the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC), or the NSW Ombudsman.

The Ombudsman’s report provides suggestions to improve the response, both to the current and future crises. These include designating a single oversight agency as a ‘front door’ for external complaints.

The Ombudsman also suggests that relevant oversight bodies be pro-actively briefed by Government about its actions, so that those bodies are better placed to respond rapidly and accurately to queries and complaints from the public.

Mr Miller said: “As we move into year two of this pandemic, it is apparent that even with the vaccine roll-out, measures like hotel quarantine are likely to remain in place for some time.”

“I am pleased that the Department of Premier and Cabinet has recently confirmed that relevant NSW Government agencies, including the NSW Police Force and NSW Health, have agreed to my suggestion for a roundtable discussion with relevant NSW oversight bodies, including my office, the HCCC and the LECC.

“I am confident we will be able to work together to identify ways to improve the access, ease and effectiveness of complaint resolution for those affected by quarantine and related arrangements. In turn, those complaints will help to strengthen the public health arrangements while also ensuring fair treatment and improved experiences to those affected.”

General inquiries contact: James Stuart | 0477 724 835 | media@ombo.nsw.gov.au

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