The Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) today wrote to members, back-tracking from previous advice that had been widely perceived as telling them to avoid public questioning of government health officials over the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 24 March letter, signed by PHAA president David Templeman on behalf of the board, said it was not the association’s “intention to stop or stifle” evidence-informed debate.
“At no time did we intend to cede our independence, or to adopt an approach that accepted the edicts of government. Nor was it intended to stop people with relevant expertise in contributing to the debate,” said the letter.
The letter, which follows in full below, follows concerns raised by PHAA members and others about the previous communication to members on 18 March, as reported yesterday at Croakey.
A discussion around media coverage of the pandemic, by ABC TV’s Media Watch program last night, put the spotlight on the PHAA’s position, while also reporting that the Federal Government had rung the ABC to complain about Dr Norman Swan’s coverage.
Meanwhile, the news that some regional newspapers in Victoria will suspend publishing because of the pandemic’s impact on their business raises some wider concerns around the capacity of the public interest journalism sector to fufil its roles at such a critical time.
Letter to PHAA members (24 March)
Titled: “Clarification on our recent communication on COVID-19”
The Board of the PHAA wishes to acknowledge the concerns raised by a number of members on our email to members sent on Wednesday 18 March.
We also thank the many members who responded to the letter with words of encouragement and support.
These are challenging times and we are doing our best to make a constructive contribution to this public health crisis. We acknowledge that the language used may have insufficiently articulated our position and generated some concern among our membership. We apologise for any ill will caused.
A number of members highlighted the importance of independent evidence-based voices to keep government to account, contributing to the best possible decisions in dealing with an extraordinary public health crisis. We agree with this.
It was not our intention to stop or stifle such evidence informed debate.
At a time of significant confusion and anxiety, our intention was to reinforce the best available public health advice – The Australian Health Protection Principle Committee (AHPPC). We remain of the view that this is currently the best available structure to lead the response to this crisis and advise government.
We have confidence in the AHPPC, its competence and intent, led by the Chief Medical Officer and the jurisdictional Chief Health Officers, who have the ability to draw upon a diverse range of the best available expertise.
However, to ensure the most appropriate decisions are made for the unique circumstances of each state and territory, we acknowledge how important it is that, where necessary, local decisions may be made on a jurisdictional basis.
At no time did we intend to cede our independence, or to adopt an approach that accepted the edicts of government. Nor was it intended to stop people with relevant expertise in contributing to the debate.
There will be many groups, including PHAA, who will legitimately advocate on behalf of those who are most vulnerable in the community. In these difficult times there are no perfect answers.
We are confident that our membership will continue to play an active and constructive role to assist the Australian community through COVID19. We have also been in communication with the government on various issues seeking to constructively influence response to COVID19. This includes on issues such as recommendations for those in the Justice System, management of water pipes and offer of assistance from members expert in public health communications
To guide our future input to this issue we are establishing a COVID19 Response group, drawing upon the expertise of our membership.
We will also welcome, as we always do, input from our membership as to what are the most constructive contributions we can make.
We welcome your feedback and comments on this and all public health matters and look forward to working constructively to assist in minimising the enormous adverse effects COVID19 will bring upon the Australian community and beyond.
We also wish you, your families and friends, and your colleagues and your communities the very best as we all face this trying and difficult time.
On behalf of The Board of PHAA