A New South Wales parliamentary inquiry into the state’s handling of the coronavirus crisis has descended into name-calling and accusations that MPs were “winking” at each other during the video conference.
In what was the first NSW parliamentary hearing to be held entirely online, MPs traded insults as technical delays, unmuted microphones and facial expressions disrupted proceedings.
At one point the health minister, Brad Hazzard, accused Labor’s Walt Secord and Adam Searle of winking at each other on camera while he was speaking.
The health minister also called Robert Borsak, from the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party, “a numpty” and Borsak told him “I like the fact I get under your skin”.
The chair of the Covid-19 inquiry, Greens MP David Shoebridge, had to appeal for calm multiple times.
In between arguments, Hazzard and the chief medical officer, Dr Kerry Chant, fielded questions on the outbreak at Newmarch House aged care centre, the outbreak on the Ruby Princess cruise ship, and the plan to return to schools.
Chant clarified to Shoebridge that teenagers in Year 12, who are poised to return to school, have the same risk categorisation as children when it comes to the health effects of Covid-19.
“Our advice for year 11 and 12 students would be the same [as for children],” she said.
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Chant also said that any relaxing of statewide restrictions would have to be reviewed monthly – the equivalent of two cycles of the virus’s 14-day incubation period.
However, the inquiry descended into name-calling when Borsak asked Hazzard whether he would appear before the special commission of inquiry into the Ruby Princess, overseen by Bret Walker SC.
On Tuesday, a NSW Health senior epidemiologist, Kelly-Anne Ressler, gave evidence before the commission and became tearful under questioning by Walker. The prime minister, Scott Morrison, later said Walker was “a bit out of line” and too aggressive.
On Thursday, Borsak asked Hazzard: “Why were you happy to send Kelly-Anne Ressler in to the inquiry to answer for your mistakes?”
Hazzard replied: “You really have a problem.”
“I didn’t send Dr Ressler,” the minister continued. “Clearly you aren’t the slightest bit interested in treating her with any respect. To raise her in this context is entirely inappropriate … I one hundred per cent back all the health staff in the front line”.
He told Borsak “your colleagues are good people … you need to take some lessons from your colleagues”.
Borsak replied: “I do like the fact that I get under your skin. You really do deserve it.”
During an extended exchange, Hazzard told him “you are a numpty” and Borsak said Hazzard was “hopeless”.
Shoebridge intervened to say “this isn’t doing anyone credit”.
A few minutes later, Hazzard also accused Secord and Searle of winking at each other as he answered a question.
“What was that wink for, Mr Searle?” he asked. “What was that wink about?”
The two Labor shadow ministers, who were in the same room in parliament, denied they had winked at each other.
“Yes you just winked,” Hazzard said. “It was well and truly on screen that you winked … grow up.”
Shoebridge then asked the participants: “If we could treat each other, both sides, with courtesy this will be far more beneficial for the public, who actually want to get this information”.
Hazzard and Chant were also asked about Guardian Australia’s exclusive report that two private medical staff who worked on the Ruby Princess were sent into the Newmarch House aged care facility.
Chant said that the company, Aspen Medical, did not tell NSW Health that those nurses had worked on the Ruby Princess.
Labor’s Penny Sharpe asked why staff from Aspen Medical were “allowed to walk into Newmarch” and what testing they were given.
Hazzard told Sharpe her question “shows a profound lack of understanding of the NSW health system” and that “NSW Health has no control over those matters.”
Chant said: “There is no barrier to healthcare staff who worked with Covid-positive patients attending other places providing there is no breach in their PPE.”
The parliamentary inquiry will return next week.