February 2022

Comment

Keep calm and curry on

By Nick Feik
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
Charting the Morrison government’s failures to prepare Australia for the latest COVID outbreak

Luckily for the prime minister, a machine has not yet been invented that can measure political uselessness. If it did exist, it would need the Richter scale to register his government’s actions as the Omicron outbreak broke. In November, Scott Morrison declared his aspiration to get the government out of people’s lives and, while Morrison doesn’t often deliver on his announcements, this time he nailed it: over the critical following weeks his government was a government in name only.

Morrison’s most prominent contributions to public administration throughout that period consisted of, to be precise, social media posts of one barbecued barramundi and a Kerala fish curry, a guest commentary slot at the cricket, a confused campaign to prevent the world’s best tennis player playing in Australia’s major tennis tournament, and a new set of definitions of “close contact” that ensured tens of thousands more people would be exposed to the virus as national testing regimes collapsed.

But how could Morrison have anticipated the stress that a new variant would bring? Who could have predicted it? Only the government’s own health officials, in February last year, who warned that widespread community transmission could see testing sites overwhelmed and promoted the use of “alternative testing methods”, including rapid antigen testing, to alleviate pressure. And the public health specialists who briefed members of government in August that the PCR-testing system wouldn’t hold up under rising numbers of infection. And the Australian Medical Association, which warned senior executives in the federal health department in September of the need to develop a national strategy for procuring rapid antigen tests (RATs). And the union movement, in both June and October. And business groups. And aged-care providers, who informed the government in November of the need for widespread rapid antigen testing capabilities. RATs had been in common use across Europe since the start of 2021.

Who could have predicted that the demand for testing would rise so rapidly, when it became a requirement of state travel as Christmas approached and cases rose exponentially, and New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet led the nation in removing all obstacles to community-wide viral transmission? Who, apart from the Doherty Institute, which provided the federal government’s own commissioned modelling? And the NSW health minister, Brad Hazzard, who predicted that Omicron could lead to 25,000 new cases per day in his state?

While hospitals, medical associations, epidemiologists, GPs and ambulance services were beseeching governments for months to take the obvious steps to reduce the predictable spread of infection – providing more masks and PPE, building capacity for testing, launching public information campaigns and boosting resources for health services – all Morrison heard was to do none of these things.

His government spent its last weeks of the parliamentary year trying to amend religious anti-discrimination laws, silence charities and change electoral donation laws for its own political advantage. This degree of irrelevance and ineptitude would almost be funny if hundreds of thousands of us hadn’t spent the following weeks either sick with COVID-19, standing in queues for hours to be tested or driving around town looking for the golden ticket of a normal-priced pack of RATs; if we hadn’t watched testing centres close, cancelled holidays, shut businesses or lost work; if we hadn’t seen supply chains collapse and supermarkets empty; if we hadn’t been forced to work with COVID-positive colleagues, doing extra shifts for weeks on end because no one else was holding the hose and someone needed to save people’s lives and feed them.

Encouraging people to take personal responsibility and test or isolate themselves when there were no tests available was a degree of political bastardry that shocked even the most world-weary of us. The situation was bad enough that most members of the public would have accepted a user-pays health system by that point, only there was nothing to pay for, because the shelves were still empty. Governments were soon relying on RAT results to gauge the rise in infections, so the data was wrecked too: we could measure only the positive results of those who could get their hands on tests. The real numbers were clearly much, much higher. Sources from the hospitality, transport and retail sectors reported between a third and a half of their workers were out of action.

But at least the national vaccination program was back on track, right? In fact, the few Australians who weren’t scurrying around looking for RATs were scurrying around looking for booster vaccinations or trying to book their children’s first dose before school started.

“Due to unprecedented demand for the new paediatric formulation of Pfizer and orders to support booster doses, your delivery will arrive early in the week commencing January 10,” GPs were told by the federal health department’s Vaccine Operations Centre. Unprecedented demand. It was a new vaccine category – it was self-evidently unprecedented. That didn’t make it unforeseeable.

Even so, when GP clinics started calling thousands of families to cancel or reschedule their bookings after even this supply didn’t arrive, the military man in charge of the rollout, Lieutenant General John Frewen, insisted there wasn’t a supply problem. It must have been our imagination, the voice of the addled receptionist calling on a Saturday night in early January to cancel our following week’s appointment because “our doses haven’t arrived and we don’t know when they will”. Try your local pharmacy, Frewen told RN Breakfast: “We will have more than enough vaccines for every kid to have their first dose before the end of the year.” YEAR! Did he misspeak? Who can tell anymore.

The government that once sprayed $27 billion in JobKeeper funds at ineligible businesses, whose hand-picked advisory board once recommended that the best way to recover from COVID was for the nation to subsidise new gas pipelines, and which has an open chequebook for military spending, suddenly couldn’t find a single extra dollar to fight the virus, or to support the workers whose lives had been upended by the government’s negligence. Weeks into the outbreak, the self-proclaimed great economic managers still hadn’t figured out that mass hospital admissions, business closures and staff furloughs would far outstrip the cost of bulk-purchasing and distributing RATs. The public was never asking for everything to be made free, as Morrison imputed. But was even the barest minimum – the capacity to test and protect ourselves – too much to ask?

Has the prime ministership become a platform for a national cheerleader, nothing but a self-promotional opportunity?

I don’t know who among Morrison’s advisers needs to hear this (does he have advisers?), but there isn’t a political bromide yet created that can fight viruses. He advocated that we stare it down, live with it, push through, and shake and bake the economy with can-do capitalism while not looking in the rear-view mirror. He wanted Australians to look out the front windscreen but we ended up smashing headfirst through it.

 

 

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.

@nickfeik

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