26 September 2023

Ombudsman finds COVID worse second year

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Complexity and frequent changes to COVID rules left people in the community feeling overwhelmed, confused and uncertain in the second year of the pandemic, according to a new report from the NSW Ombudsman.

Tabling his second report on the pandemic, The COVID-19 pandemic: second report, Ombudsman Paul Miller said his office received 1,046 COVID-related actionable complaints in 2021-22 – more than double the number received in 2020-21.

Mr Miller said the largest increase in complaints received in the Ombudsman’s office concerned the people in prison and involved in the custodial system, from where it received more than five times as many complaints about custodial services than in the previous year.

“Lockdowns and visit prohibitions were extended to prevent transmission of COVID into and across centres.” Mr Miller said.

“Staff shortages also impacted centre operations as the prevalence of COVID increased in the community,” he said.

“As a result, many inmates had less time out of their cells, reduced access to programs and to work, reduced access to amenities including in some cases to shower facilities and clean clothes, and fewer visits and in-person contact with loved ones.”

Mr Miller said the second year of the pandemic also saw a significant but temporary spike in complaints about Service NSW, which had to pivot quickly to perform the new function of processing COVID-related grants.

“People who contacted the Ombudsman reported that the complexity and frequent changes in COVID rules left them feeling overwhelmed, confused and uncertain,” the Ombudsman said.

“The sheer number of public health orders that were made and the frequency with which they were amended contributed to this.”

His Report noted the limited Parliamentary oversight of public health orders, the difficulties the public faced in knowing what the rules were at any given time, the inconsistency in the enforcement of those rules (including a disproportionate enforcement in places of greater socioeconomic disadvantage), as well as questions about the proportionality of fines.

Mr Miller acknowledged and thanked Government Agencies and their staff for their considerable efforts in responding to the pandemic – especially those on the front lines and those involved in the planning and continued delivery of usual Government services.

“There is nothing we have seen in either of our Reports to fault the genuine dedication and commitment to Public Service and the tireless hard work of the Public Authorities we have oversighted as they have sought to manage and mitigate this pandemic,” the Ombudsman said.

His 120-page Report can be accessed at this PS News link.

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