Labor will use the opening of budget week to commit to establishing an Australian Centre for Disease Control, saying a dedicated body could have avoided some of the under preparation that was evident at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Australian Medical Association earlier this year urged the Morrison government to set up an Australian national centre for disease control to provide independent advice to governments about the management of pandemics, and ensure a national stockpile of essential equipment was in place for the next crisis.
The AMA’s then president, Tony Bartone, made the pitch, backed by the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF), during an appearance at the Senate inquiry into the government’s management of the Covid-19 crisis in late June, noting he was aware of some resistance within government to creating a new health bureaucracy.
A parliamentary inquiry in 2013 called for an independent review to assess the feasibility of a national CDC. But the Coalition rejected that recommendation in a response to the inquiry five years later.
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese will confirm on Tuesday Labor will establish a CDC if it wins the next federal election. Albanese will argue the coronavirus pandemic has made the case why pandemic preparations need to improve.
Under the Labor proposal, which was briefed to reporters without a costing attached to the measure, an Australian CDC would have capacity to monitor current and emerging threats and work with state governments and medical service providers to improve surge readiness in both health and aged care settings.
As well as working to combat the spread of infectious diseases, the CDC would also work on strategies to prevent chronic illnesses.
The CDC would manage the national medical stockpile and run preparedness drills. It would also collaborate with other countries on responses to a pandemic threat.
With MPs back in Canberra ahead of Tuesday’s budget and the resumption of parliament, Albanese told the Labor caucus budget week marked a shift in strategy for the opposition.
He said Labor had been constructive as the Morrison government faced up to the challenges associated with the coronavirus pandemic, but it was now time for Labor to start laying out a more detailed alternative given voters could be going to the polls next year.
In relation to the CDC commitment, Albanese said Australia was the only country in the OECD not to have a CDC-equivalent, and there had not been a pandemic drill at the national level for 12 years.
“Ask any Australian and they’ll tell you our response to the coronavirus pandemic was too slow, too reactive and too uncoordinated,” the Labor leader said in a statement.
“We can’t be left playing catch up again – we cannot afford another Ruby Princess, or another tragic disaster in aged care,” he said. “Our health, our lives and our economy all depend on us getting our response to future pandemics right.”
Albanese says he would work with state governments on the design of the body.
The AMA has made it clear a CDC should be its own entity rather than part of the apparatus of government. In backing an Australian CDC earlier this year, Bartone said it was imperative that a CDC work “frankly, fearlessly and independently of governments of the day” and be in a position to collaborate with all the public health expertise in the community.
There has been some concern in the health and medical communities that the current pandemic advisory body, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, has been absorbed during the crisis as a sub-committee of the national cabinet.
The CDC model envisaged by Labor would not have statutory independence but it would be similar to the Therapeutic Goods Administration, an advisory body that sits within the federal health portfolio.
Like the TGA, it would provide independent advice and governments would make their own decisions informed by that advice.