The Politics    Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Mistakes made and lives saved

By Rachel Withers

Image of Health Minister Greg Hunt and Prime Minister Scott Morrison arriving at the Doherty Institute in Melbourne today. Image © Con Chronis / AAP Images

Health Minister Greg Hunt and Prime Minister Scott Morrison arrive at the Doherty Institute in Melbourne today. Image © Con Chronis / AAP Images

Morrison admits mistakes were made in the handling of the pandemic. Is he gearing up to make some more?

Over the past 24 hours, Scott Morrison’s attention has turned to selling his government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a speech to the Sydney Institute last night, and again at a Melbourne press conference today, the PM repeated several talking points. First was that his government had done the best it could, while acknowledging that mistakes had been made. “No government has got everything right,” he added this morning. Then, of course, there were the many lives his government had saved through its actions – though that number, mysteriously, dropped from 40,000 to 30,000 between last night and this morning. Most forceful, however, was his recurrent message that it was time for governments to give Australians their lives back, as he called on states and territories to ease their remaining restrictions. “We’re not letting Omicron take us back,” he proclaimed, even as other nations begin to take dramatic steps to counter the variant. Hopefully Morrison is right, and Australia is well placed to handle Omicron. But what if things change? Is he gearing up to make another one of those mistakes he alluded to, many of which were driven by his own hubris and stubbornness when it came to reopening?

In acknowledging that his government had made mistakes, Morrison did not admit to any specific ones, Nine noted. His focus was much more on how they had been “overcome”. But it’s always worth bearing in mind just how many mistakes the federal government has made, and how much extra pain, suffering and death may have resulted. The worst of the errors, of course, were to be found in the vaccine rollout – an effort that has been rated by many, from Malcolm Turnbull to Richard Denniss, as the worst public policy screw-up in Australian history. Whether failing to take up an early meeting with Pfizer, relying too heavily on one locally manufactured vaccine, communicating poorly in hesitancy-stoking evening pressers, or making the ludicrous claim that the vaccine rollout was “not a race”, the mistakes the federal government has made this year alone forced half the population into prolonged lockdowns that likely could have been avoided. This is far from the simple “non-delivery” of vaccines that Morrison would have you believe the government could “claw back ground on”.

And that’s not to forget last year’s mistakes, which saw the Ruby Princess debacle, and the deadly errors made across aged care, with the federal government making the same mistakes again this year. The government also famously dawdled on building quarantine facilities, and was late to the table on the need for our own mRNA manufacturing capability – a fact only highlighted by today’s Melbourne presser, in which Morrison announced what many had long been calling for.

In fact, the vast number of lives “saved” were saved in spite of Morrison’s actions, not because of them. The PM, as has been well documented, was not decisive in implementing a full national shutdown, and the state and territory leaders are owed most of the credit for going hard and early to avoid a severe outbreak. In the intervening months, Morrison has been reluctant to support or fund states locking down, even as those lockdowns have saved many of the lives he now wants credit for.

It’s true that Australia has done remarkably well throughout the pandemic, with a comparatively low death toll compared to the rest of the world. That death toll, however, could have been much lower if the federal government had made fewer mistakes, and would no doubt have been much higher if the PM had got his way when it came to reopening. Yes, some mistakes were inevitable. But if the PM is going to keep demanding credit for each individual life saved, perhaps we might also note the far higher number of lives lost because of his government’s errors. His renewed insistence that we move forward and open up, that the pandemic is behind us, that we can’t take a backwards step, is a reminder of all that his stubborn hubris has cost us.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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