It was a "serious failure" that no Australian Government agency with responsibility for disability policy, including the Department of Health, made "any significant effort" to consult with people with disability or their representative organisations during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, a report by the Disability Royal Commission says.
“The failure to consult during the critical early period contributed to the Australian Government neglecting to develop policies specifically addressing the needs of people with disability and the challenges confronting them in an emergency unprecedented in modern times”, the Royal Commission’s report into the effects of the pandemic on people with disability says.
The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability Covid-19 report has been tabled in the Australian Parliament.
It has recommended that the Australian Government “explicitly commit to ensuring that all agencies responsible for planning and implementing responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and any future emergencies establish and implement formal mechanisms for consulting with and involving people with disability and disability representative organisations in planning and giving effect to the responses”.
Chair Ronald Sackville AO QC says the report makes 22 wide-ranging recommendations in light of evidence from people with disability, advocates, experts and government representatives during the Royal Commission’s fifth public hearing held in August.
People with disability told the Royal Commission of their fear, anxiety and stress during the pandemic and feeling invisible and ignored as measures were implemented to safeguard the spread of the virus.
Mr Sackville said it was clear that official lines of communication had failed between decision-makers and people with disability, leaving them feeling “forgotten and ignored”.
“The evidence at Public hearing 5 echoed what people with disability were telling the Royal Commission from the very outset of the pandemic: people with disability were extremely anxious, stressed and frightened as they found themselves severely affected by an unprecedented health crisis”, the report said.
“Their already high levels of anxiety, stress and fear were immeasurably heightened by the feeling that they had been forgotten by governments and general community and that the responses to the pandemic had ignored the severe challenges they faced.”
It says the Australian Government must protect and support people with disability during times of pandemic and future emergencies, especially as infectious disease experts suggest that Australia must be prepared for a resurgence of COVID-19 as has occurred across the globe.
It also says it was not appropriate for the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission (NDIS Commission) to rely on the existing NDIS Practice Standards and policies to address the challenges and danger presented by the onset of a “frightening pandemic”.
“The NDIS Commission followed this course notwithstanding that circumstances had changed radically and the risks to NDIS participants had increased substantially”, the report said.
It recommended the NDIS Commission review the NDIS Practice Standards and NDIS Quality Indicators to ensure they are appropriate for pandemics and emergencies, and ensure “its policies and procedures reflect its powers and responsibilities”.
Mr Sackville said during the COVID-19 hearing, the Australian Government’s submissions acknowledged several important matters, including that the pandemic had had a significant impact on people with disability and those involved in the disability sector, as well as the wider community and health system.
The Australian Government’s acknowledgement of its international obligations also were “appropriate and significant”.
However, the report says Australia’s federal system - under which the states retain responsibilities for delivering essential services such as health and education – could not be used as a basis for the Australian Government to avoid its international obligations.
“More specifically, the Australian Government cannot disclaim responsibility for ensuring compliance with Australia’s obligations under the [Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)] on the ground that the states provide certain essential services such as testing for COVID-19 or providing all state school children with online education during government imposed ‘lockdowns’”, the report said.
“The Australian Government has both the legislative power under domestic law and the responsibility under international law to ensure that the human rights of people with disability outlined in the CRPD are respected and enforced within Australia.”
The report noted it was “striking” that neither disability representative organisations nor individual people with disability were consulted “during the critical early period” when emergency plans responding to the pandemic were being prepared. It was also striking that the NDIS Commission was not consulted prior to the release of the COVID-19 Plan.
It said the Australian Government was responsible for two “significant failings” from the onset of the pandemic in late January 2020 when the World Health Organisation declared the outbreak of international concern, until the establishment of the Advisory Committee for the COVID-19 Response for People with Disability on 2 April 2020.
First, neither the Australian Government nor its agencies made any “significant attempts” before 2 April 2020 to consult with people with disability or their representative organisations when planning how to respond to the emerging crisis, resulting in no additional funding being provided to disability representative organisations.
Secondly, neither the Australian Government nor its agencies considered in any systematic or sustained fashion what measures were required to support and protect the safety, health and well-being of people with disability during the early stages of the pandemic.
It recommended the Australian Government Department of Health should “ensure that an appropriately resourced unit or team has specific responsibility for developing plans and programs to protect the health and wellbeing of people with disability, including during emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic”.