ACT Health's commitment to releasing more information about COVID-19 cases in Canberra is a welcome first step in ensuring residents have access to similar data as people in other jurisdictions.
The decision, the result of pressure applied by The Canberra Times as a result of concerns about the paucity of information released here, means that daily updates on positive cases will now include an age breakdown; information that is routinely provided by health authorities in states such as NSW and Victoria.
ACT Health has also undertaken to provide a more detailed weekly epidemiological COVID update which should include information on the vaccination status of individuals who have tested positive and whether or not patients remained in hospital - presumably as a consequence of pre-existing conditions - after they had been declared COVID free.
One of this newspaper's major criticisms of ACT Health's practice of holding data close to its chest was that it seemed to obviously run against not only the broad public interest of transparency, but even the particular health imperatives of the time. At the height of the Omicron wave, health officials didn't want it known that only one of the victims who died in January had a booster shot while they were at the same time urging people to get that third jab.
The information they wanted kept secret, or at least obscured into a "fully vaccinated" category, would have been very helpful given the slow take-up of booster shots. And even if it wasn't helpful, the public would still have a right to this information. This, along with other failures revealed by this newspaper's reporting last week, seems to have motivated Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith to take some action after she spent much of last week trying to defend her directorate.
What was remarkable about the revelations in the freedom of information disclosures was that the advisers of Ms Stephen-Smith herself were apparently also denied data for inclusion in media statements over the summer. When the minister's people asked for information on whether or not some of those who had died had been in palliative care they were told the information was not available - despite the very low number of cases involved.
Freedom of information documents released to The Canberra Times revealed that it was unspecified privacy concerns, not the lack of data as first claimed, that had led to information being withheld.
These concerns have still not been addressed - despite what Ms Stephen-Smith has described as "robust discussions" with health officials. Health say they are still bound by privacy concerns from releasing information even if could have no conceivable way of identifying a patient - as was the case in all of the inquiries made for information by this newspaper.
Encouragingly Ms Stephen-Smith's office says discussions are underway on how to balance the public release of information with patients' right to privacy.
While these steps - a victory for public interest journalism - are significant, much needs to be done if Canberrans are to have access to data that is routinely made available elsewhere.
If privacy laws or health department regulations are impeding the release of data for no good reason then they need to be reviewed and amended.
The good news for now is that the Health Minister appears to be listening. She has taken one first step to help the community have a clearer picture of matters that should be their right to know.
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