Public Accounts and Estimates Committee Inquiry into the Victorian Government’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

11 Nov 2020

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I rise to speak on the interim report of the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee’s inquiry into the Victorian government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This has been an extensive inquiry. We have heard from ministers and a number of groups across a wide range of areas in terms of the impact of and the government’s response to COVID. It is an ongoing inquiry as well. The interim report was tabled and the evidence was heard largely prior to the onset of the second wave. We have had subsequent hearings to that and there will be a further round of hearings, as has been announced by the committee chair. From this report and from the subsequent evidence we heard at subsequent hearings and in subsequent submissions, I want to touch on a range of significant areas that my Greens colleagues and I have been focused on, really wanting to play a constructive role in assisting our communities and our constituents and also in holding the government to account where need be.

From the outset we have really been concerned about the impact on renters, particularly now that we have got a whole group of people who are facing economic, employment and now housing insecurity with the potential for eviction. We certainly welcomed the legislation to place a moratorium on those evictions. However, during the hearings stakeholders did raise concerns that should that moratorium expire, which it was due to do in September, then we would find a number of people in rental stress, unable to pay the rent and facing eviction. We were really pleased to be able to work with the government to see that extended to March 2021, and importantly that includes commercial renters as well. So many of our commercial renters, our traders on our high streets, were facing eviction, and this was a really important protection. But from submissions we also heard that a lot of people in need are just not getting the help that they need. They are not able to access rent reductions or negotiate rent reductions and are not able to access grants. Services have been overwhelmed, and whilst there has been a lowering of the savings threshold to get a grant or funding for services, I think certainly the government will need to continue to monitor this to make sure that those who are most in need get the support they need.

I am really pleased that digital devices and internet access have been provided to tens of thousands of students. Schools sourced their own, but the government had a scheme as well. Numerous witnesses spoke of the need for this to be ongoing beyond the pandemic. It has exposed that so many students were without access to a computer or internet at home in the first place. That is not acceptable in normal times. In questioning the Minister for Education about this, I was really pleased with his positive response, and I hope that he will soon make an announcement regarding making sure that those who were provided with a laptop and device and are in need should be able to keep them and that this will be something that is ongoing in the future. On the lack of PPE for healthcare workers, certainly the AMA in their evidence raised:

… a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline health workers and a continuing issue with fair distribution across the state. This has been one of the most important issues for our members and a significant source of stress for them.

There has been significant transmission amongst our health workers, frustration about the lack of disclosure about where and how they acquired COVID and inconsistent statistics coming out of government. There has been a lack of N95 masks, a lack of fit testing—the member for Brunswick has raised this on numerous occasions. There have been hospitals in some parts of the world that have achieved low or zero rates of health worker infections, and while it is improving here it has gone too slowly.

I am really pleased that we have been able to provide or advocate for support for our public housing tenants, particularly during the lockdown, when residents were not given the food, the medicine, the support that they needed. They were not given information in the appropriate languages. The member for Melbourne supported her community through that, really pushing for public housing tenants to get the information, the mobile testing, the extra cleaning for those tenants on those estates.

We heard numerous pieces of evidence in support of a bubble system being put in place, and we welcomed that that was finally put in place to help reduce isolation amongst single people. It did not quite match up with intimate partner rules, it had someone unworkable requirements, but that was a welcome development to help reduce isolation. This inquiry is continuing. It will continue to play a constructive role and continue to hold the government to account when required. There have been many positive developments out of it.

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