The Politics    Friday, July 2, 2021

The man with another plan

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a press conference today. Image via ABC News

Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a press conference today. Image via ABC News

Scott Morrison finally offers a course out of COVID. Sort of.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison exited today’s national cabinet meeting with a plan. Or the beginnings of a plan. Or a plan to have a plan. Talking up the “good news” he had for Australians, Morrison announced a “new deal” for a “pathway out of COVID-19”, laying out yet another phased plan. (We’ll see how long this one lasts, with Morrison having recently thrown the original plan for vaccine eligibility out the window.) Describing the four “phases” of getting the country back to normalcy, the PM revealed we were now in phase one (“Vaccinate, prepare, pilot”), in which we will continue to seek to suppress the virus while we get vaccinated. Descriptions followed of what will occur in each of the subsequent phases, but there was little information on when or how we will reach each one, with all that still to be determined. It’s staggering to think we didn’t even have any specific phases in mind for the reopening until now, with Morrison having spent months refusing to engage in the conversation at all. Eighteen months into the pandemic, he has come forward with a half-baked plan, talking up the need to get vaccinated in order to get to the next phase, but with no threshold for when it might be achieved, and no answer for the fact we don’t have the vaccine supply to get us there – wherever “there” might be.

Fronting the press for the first time since Monday’s shitshow, Morrison proudly presented his plan for the country, listing what will change in each phase, but not when or how we get to them, with the plan still lacking dates, targets or thresholds. When asked about a proposed timeline, Morrison was unable to provide any detail, saying only that he hoped we would be able to move into the next phase by the end of the year. Phase one will see us continue to pursue suppression of the virus until the whole population has had a chance to be vaccinated, with commercial flight arrivals to be halved to reduce the risk of outbreaks, as requested by the Labor-led states. Lockdowns will be used only as a last resort (something that is obviously going just fine for Sydney right now). But when it came to explaining when we will move out of phase one, Morrison didn’t have an answer, and was only able to say that the second phase will start when an unspecified percentage of Australians are fully vaccinated – a figure to be determined by scientific evidence.

Phase two will see inbound passenger caps restored to current levels and lockdowns only used in “extreme” circumstances, with eased domestic restrictions for vaccinated people. Phase three will see the virus “managed like other infectious diseases”, whatever that means, with the abolition of caps for vaccinated travellers and restrictions on outbound travel for vaccinated Australians lifted. Phase four will allow uncapped arrivals without quarantine for vaccinated people. Not one of these phases has a threshold that must be reached before we can move into them, which prompts the question: why announce them at all? It appears the only way Morrison felt comfortable announcing contentious cuts to arrivals was with the vague promise that he will restore them at some time in the future.

Aside from lacking any serious detail, Morrison’s announcement marks a stark departure from his recent rhetoric, having spent weeks refusing to be drawn on a reopening plan, slamming those who suggested even having the conversation as “insensitive” and talking up cases in the UK whenever anyone mentioned the international border. Responding to questions today, however, Morrison noted that Australians haven’t had much incentive to get vaccinated thus far because there weren’t many COVID cases around and there wasn’t a promise of reopening if they did get the jab – something people have been pointing out to the “no rush” prime minister for months. Morrison claimed people would now have a stronger reason to get vaccinated. “We get this done, Australia, and you can see what is on the other side,” he said. “We made it very clear today what’s on the other side. You get vaccinated, and we get there”. But it’s not at all clear how many of us have to do so to get “there” or where that is. As Morrison himself was quick to point out, he was one of the early proponents of learning to live with the virus, noting that he flagged this some months ago. But his double backflip only goes to show that he will push whichever line is politically convenient at the time.

Admittedly, it’s promising to see Morrison finally take seriously the need to get Australians vaccinated, though it would be more helpful if the promise that we can move forward once we are all vaccinated came with, you know, enough vaccines for us to actually do so. The prime minister today informed us that the mess he has created – through his vaccine rollout failures and his refusal to countenance building purpose-built quarantine facilities until they were desperately needed – was now known as phase one. And we remain firmly stuck there, physically and mentally, with neither the doses, nor any idea of the threshold of doses required, to get us out.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

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The list

“Reading your column this week, I wondered if that lockdown wasn’t similarly chastening for you, Jon, or otherwise emotionally harmful in strange and indelible ways. How else to explain you kind of wishing a COVID outbreak upon New South Wales?”

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“In the spirit of dystopian anthology series such as Black Mirror and The Twilight Zone, Solos, Amazon Prime’s newest science-fiction offering, explores the most terrifying premise of all: that the world will change but we won’t. Across seven episodes, the characters advance time travel, space travel and human cloning. They eliminate uncertainty and traumatic memories. But they are as trapped in their vulnerability as anyone in the Dark Ages, or now. As the saying has it: wherever you go, there you are.”

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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