This report provides transparency on the Western Australian health system’s current state of preparedness in a number of areas for COVID-19 viral outbreaks. As a limited assurance review, it provides Parliament and the public with information from WA Health about its key plans and actions that have informed the State’s overall response to the pandemic.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in the early months of this year, health systems around Australia, and many internationally, experienced shortages of essential supplies due to increased usage, stockpiling and global supply chain disruption. Personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators and trained intensive care staff were the 3 areas particularly identified by Australian governments as critical for preparing health systems for community outbreaks of the disease on our shores.
While there was much panic and uncertainty about the disease in the early days of 2020, much has now been learned. There is now reliable information on the characteristics of patients most likely to experience severe illness and the proportion that may succumb to the virus. Much more has also been learned about the most effective clinical treatment protocols to reduce disease severity for those who do become ill. This can inform how we most effectively target our resources and support. In addition, on a community-wide scale, citizens have arguably become more hygiene-aware and hygiene-capable than at any other time in human history.
Here within Western Australia, in response to the pandemic, we have been in a rolling State of Emergency and under public health directions since mid-March 2020, with our interstate and international borders currently closed. Social distancing measures – including unprecedented restrictions on gatherings and movement of citizens across intrastate borders, cancellation of elective surgeries and forced closures of business and community facilities – were progressively enacted, and then mostly eased, over recent months. The stated aim of the response measures was to slow the spread of the disease and give the WA health system time to prepare in the 3 stated areas, while allowing the health system to manage the ongoing case load – that is, to ‘flatten the curve’. Measures enacted to date have resulted in there not being any community transmission of COVID-19 in WA since mid-April 2020.
Reassuringly, WA Health considers that it is now well prepared for a potential outbreak of COVID-19. The information presented in this report shows that surge planning and preparations have been made in the 3 key areas of PPE, ventilated bed capacity and staffing. In recent times, WA Health has also made good progress on developing outbreak plans and working more closely with various sectors, including aged care. An increased focus on testing and contact tracing capability is also evident in the information presented in this report.
Recommendations for optimised response and maintaining public trust
The COVID-19 pandemic has placed substantial pressure on the social contract between governments and communities around the world. Governments are requiring the public to make significant personal sacrifices. In this context, it is vitally important for the people of WA – and the strength of our overall community well-being and trust in the public sector – that WA’s health planning and response measures are transparent, proportionate and well-informed by the latest global data on disease prevalence and severity, and the most up-to-date clinical treatment methods.
WA Health can support continued community confidence in public health measures by providing regular, up-to-date and evidence-based information to Parliament and the public on these matters. This will allow more expansive deliberations on their appropriateness, and due consideration of ongoing costs, risks and benefits of various support and response options.
As we move forward during these challenging times, it is important that as a community we manage for the virus as we now know it to be, and not for the virus that was feared in the earliest days of COVID-19’s emergence. Future health responses should recognise our improved health and hygiene capability, and that we are no longer facing critical PPE shortages for our health workers.
Future OAG audits and reviews
The elements of health preparedness outlined in this report are not the full sum of activities underway in WA Health or throughout the community to prepare for and manage our society in response to the global pandemic. There have been many other measures with financial and human impact that warrant examination.
My Office will conduct audits and reviews of further aspects of the response and recovery measures, including advice to support decision-making around the expenditure of public money and implementation activities undertaken in the name of this virus. The work of my Office will provide transparency and assurance to support accountability of the public sector.
Much has and will continue to be learned by our community from this pandemic response, and many of those lessons will extend well beyond the public health sphere. There will no doubt be opportunities to strengthen our public infrastructure and institutions for the benefit of the community.
I thank the staff at WA Health – in the State Health Incident Coordination Centre and across Health entities – for their cooperation and assistance during this review. My team encountered many dedicated staff who are working hard with the aim of looking after the health of our community in the current environment, and in the event of infectious disease outbreaks.