The Politics    Thursday, January 27, 2022

Supply and demands

By Rachel Withers

Image of NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet at a press conference at Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney today. Image © Bianca De Marchi / AAP Images

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet at a press conference at Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney today. Image © Bianca De Marchi / AAP Images

With nurses, social services and retailers all demanding support, who will national cabinet actually listen to?

Another Thursday, another national cabinet meeting spent looking at the COVID-19 crisis enveloping the nation. Premiers, chief ministers and the prime minister are today being briefed on the nation’s ongoing supply-chain issues, as well as the capacity of healthcare systems, following one of the deadliest days of the pandemic so far. There have been no ludicrous suggestions from the PM ahead of today’s meeting, but there is no shortage of public proposals, with nurses, pharmacists, hospitality workers, social services and retailers all making their own demands – many relating to rapid antigen tests. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has continued his push for “fully vaccinated” to be redefined as having had three doses of a COVID vaccine, while NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet has had his quiet request for more business assistance from the federal government firmly knocked back by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. So which demands will national cabinet actually listen to?

It’s not likely to be the exhausted nurses of NSW, unfortunately, who today protested “in despair” at the conditions they have been facing during the Omicron wave. Six in 10 ICU nurses in the state have no intention of “sticking around” once the outbreak subsides, according to a recent survey by the NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association, and the union’s acting assistant general secretary, Michael Whaites, says that burnt-out nurses “desperately need” improvements to staff-to-patient ratios, as well as a pay rise. “I hope the premier is listening,” he told Nine’s Today. Perrottet, however, has already dismissed their concerns. In a morning press conference, the NSW premier insisted the health system was under pressure but coping, and pushed back against the idea that nurses were under an unworkable amount of stress. “Our nurses are doing an amazing job,” he said. “I know that they are stressed after two years of being in a pandemic, and I thank them for the care and the ongoing support.”

Perrottet was quick to turn the criticism back on his nemesis in Western Australia, arguing that “other states have their borders closed because they don’t trust their hospital systems”. But it’s not clear how Perrottet can have so much faith in his state’s healthcare system when he is so unwilling to listen to those working within it. 

The retail sector may have better luck than the nurses, and national cabinet has previously listened to industry calls to loosen close-contact isolation requirements for some workers (never mind that such decisions may only increase the pressure on the despairing nurses). The sector is urging national cabinet to extend the exemption to all retail workers, meaning they would be free to return to work so long as they returned a negative RAT result – though how this is going to work amid the severe and ongoing shortage of RATs is unclear. National cabinet is also expected to be briefed by Emergency Management Australia director-general Joe Buffone on how to protect supply chains and keep supermarket shelves stocked, something that no doubt would have been useful two months ago.

All of these groups could be brought together under the proposal being put forward by the Australian Council of Social Service. ACOSS is calling on the federal government to address the list of urgent demands it put forward earlier this month, which included setting up a COVID-19 rapid-response group comprising unions, business groups and public health experts. The national advocacy body is also proposing a number of important changes to welfare, including suspending mutual obligations for jobseekers, and is calling for rapid antigen tests to be made free for all – especially those most deeply affected by the crisis. “This pandemic continues to hit people on low incomes, people from diverse backgrounds and with pre-existing vulnerabilities the hardest,” ACOSS chief executive Dr Cassandra Goldie said today.

But if the federal government isn’t willing to listen to the nation’s peak welfare body, perhaps it might be willing listen to the newly appointed Australian of the Year, Dylan Alcott, who yesterday called for people with a disability to be given free (rather than NDIS-subsidised) RATs. So much for any hopes Scott Morrison may have held that the government was past the point of having to deal with an outspoken person in that role.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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