The COVID-19 pandemic led to unforeseen policy responses across all levels of the Australian government to first eliminate and later mitigate the pandemic spreading across the nation. Queensland was the first Australian jurisdiction to declare a public health emergency on 29 January 2020, under the Public Health Act 2005 (Qld). A human biosecurity emergency was declared by the Federal Government on 18 March 2020 under the Biosecurity (Human Biosecurity Emergency) (Human Coronavirus with Pandemic Potential) (Emergency Requirements) Determination 2020. As Australia is an island nation, borders were closed by the Federal Government to all non-residents on 20 March 2020, with returning residents required to quarantine for two weeks before entering Australia. Beginning 18 March 2020, the Federal and the State and Territory governments (the National Cabinet) agreed that each jurisdiction would implement legislation restricting indoor gatherings of greater than 100 people.

This working paper provides an overview of the key policy decisions taken to curtail the transmission of COVID-19 and protect public health in the eight Australian states and territories, using data from the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT). It examines the extent of compliance with policy measures and details the number of days that key policy measures were enacted in major Australian cities and states and territories.

Key findings:

  • During 2020, COVID-19 policy responses were similar across all Australian states and territories. This was likely due to the coordinating role of the newly formed National Cabinet, limited available information about the coronavirus, and limited exposure to the coronavirus throughout the Australian population.
  • During 2021, significant variations in COVID-19 policy responses between Australian states and territories emerged. Two different general policy strategies became apparent. States and territories with low coronavirus exposure used strict border controls (to prevent the virus entering from jurisdictions with higher case numbers) and instigated brief stay-at-home orders (‘snap lockdowns’) in response to even very few cases being detected in the community. States with higher coronavirus exposure (particularly New South Wales and Victoria) used stringent policies including stay-at-home orders, remote learning, and workplace closures for extended periods of time. A stated focus of both policy strategies was to suppress COVID-19 case numbers until vaccine supply could be secured and high vaccination rates achieved.
  • Towards the end of 2021, the Omicron variant reached Australia and policy decision makers believed that previously effective suppression strategies would no longer work against the more infectious variant. This, in combination with the high vaccination rates achieved, saw a reduction in the stringency of COVID-19 policy responses across New South Wales and Victoria. 
  • Our analysis of Google Mobility data suggests that Victorians, living under the most stringent COVID-19 policy settings, were less compliant compared to those in other jurisdictions with less stringent policy settings.
  • Residents of the cities of Melbourne and Sydney (and to a lesser extent the states of New South Wales and Victoria), endured significantly more days living under stay-at-home orders, remote learning, and workplace closures when compared with all other Australian cities and state/territory jurisdictions.