Government accused of ’hypocrisy’ for hiding COVID-19 advice
The Morrison Government has been accused of "hypocrisy" for refusing to release details of the advice it received about coronavirus in January, while calling for China to be transparent about the pandemic.
Five pieces of advice were handed to Prime Minister Scott Morrison during the early days of the disease outbreak but were withheld from a freedom of information request on the grounds of cabinet in confidence and national security, an inquiry into the government's response to COVID-19 heard on Wednesday.
South Australian Senator Rex Patrick grilled Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Philip Gaetjens about the department's refusal to make the information public given Mr Morrison's push for international transparency about the pandemic.
"I know that the Prime Minister is calling on the Chinese government to be open and transparent and engage in an inquiry, which I support," Mr Patrick said.
"I just wonder how you deal with the paradox, whereby you're asking the Chinese government to be very open about what happened in the lead up to, to this pandemic, yet, the Prime Minister, or in fact PM&C, are refusing to publicly release what happened here in Australia."
Mr Gaetjens said he believed the public statements made by Mr Morrison after National Cabinet deliberations and other meetings were the "most transparent" he had ever seen.
"In terms of what is actually happening if we have material and advice that goes to the government that meets the requirements of exemptions from FOI, then I see no hypocrisy with that whatsoever," he said.
Mr Patrick asked if Australia would except a similar "in confidence" excuse from the Chinese President Xi Xing Ping, and if so whether that would mean there's "no point in conducting an inquiry".
Mr Gaetjens replied: "I'm not going to assume what the Chinese president will do".
Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy said the true number of coronavirus cases globally was also closer to 20 million.
He told the Senate inquiry he still believed the number of coronavirus cases reported worldwide - about 4.3 million as at Wednesday - was at least five times lower than the real figure.
"If you look at a country like Australia which has really good ascertainment of testing the death rate is sort of one to two per cent, and that's been seen in other countries with good testing around that sort of level," he said.
"So if you look at just the death rate, and I would imagine that the true numbers of cases around the world would definitely be higher than those reported, and something of the order of five times the numbers of cases reported."
Prof Murphy said the world was seeing "better testing" now than when he last month suggested the true number of cases was possibly ten times the reported amount.
"I'd be very surprised if the true international caseload isn't close to that 20 million mark," he said.
"We know that some countries have death rates have reported death rates that are, you know, five, six, or 10 per cent even, which suggests … the disease is that much more severe in those countries.
"It's much more likely that they haven't tested and ascertain their caseload."
Prof Murphy said it was his "educated guess" the global coronavirus figures were still "materially under reported".
Asked if he agreed with the director general of the World Health Organisation organisation, Ted Ross, who has warned that the worst is "yet ahead," Prof Murphy said "yes".
"Within a country with a very, very with not a strong health system, I think that there is a potential for very significant problems," he said.
"I think the potential for very significant problems in those countries without strong health systems is great, so Africa is certainly one of those areas."
AUSTRALIA'S HANDLING OF CORONAVIRUS EXAMINED
Philip Gaetjens, Scott Morrison's top adviser, and a host of senior bureaucrats are being quizzed on their handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary is appearing at the Senate inquiry into the government's response today.
Mr Gaetjens will stand alongside Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy and acting health department boss Caroline Edwards.
They will also be joined by National COVID-19 co-ordination Commission chief Peter Harris.
Australia's coronavirus death toll is nearing 100 - reaching 98 on Wednesday after a woman, 81, who had been a passenger on the Ruby Princess, died in NSW.
There have been 22 deaths from the cruise ship, as a result of COVID-19, in total.
Ruth Vine appointed the country's first deputy chief medical officer for mental health - a new position created by the government to help respond to the coronavirus.
Health Minister Greg Hunt's expected statement on mental health to parliament today will note how the government is taking the issue incredibly seriously after academic research flagged a potential rise in suicides.
"One of the things we are aware of is that whilst we're practising physical distancing we should also be engaging in the social contact over the phone, in whatever way we can, to tell people that we're there, we understand," he told the ABC.
"They may be isolated but they're not alone."
States are starting to ease restrictions on business and community life after the national average daily increase in cases dipped to just 0.14 per cent. Australia recorded 6966 cases on Wednesday, with 6229 recovered.
Federal parliament is continuing to debate privacy protections around one of the key pillars in the recovery, the COVIDSafe app - downloaded by 5.6 million Australians.
The draft laws passed the lower house on Tuesday night and head to the Senate on Wednesday.
Political debate continues around whether the $1500 a fortnight wage subsidy program JobKeeper should be extended to migrants and casuals, or cut off before its expected end date of September.