The Politics    Tuesday, July 6, 2021

‘Hindsight is a wonderful thing’

By Rachel Withers

Image of Lieutenant General John Frewen

Lieutenant General John Frewen. Image via Twitter

When will this government start learning from its mistakes?

Questions are being asked, fingers pointed and blame shifted as a third Sydney aged-care worker tested positive for COVID-19 at the SummitCare facility that has also seen five residents test positive, in what should have been an easily avoidable calamity. The nursing union – which is “enormously frustrated” at the Commonwealth’s lack of urgency and its blame-shifting onto workers – has called for the federal government to fund a state-operated vaccination blitz for aged-care staff, who were originally meant to be vaccinated by Easter. Families of residents are outraged that two thirds of SummitCare staff had not been vaccinated, with workers having been mostly left to fend for themselves in sourcing a jab. Appearing on ABC News Breakfast this morning, the head of Australia’s military-themed vaccine taskforce, Lieutenant General John Frewen, said that aged-care workers remained a priority. But when questioned over why nearly two thirds of them are still not vaccinated, despite being in the highest-priority cohort, Frewen responded that residents had been prioritised, with decisions made based on the information available at the time, adding that “hindsight is a wonderful thing”. That may be true, but hindsight has nothing to do with the frankly outrageous fact that the people who care for those most vulnerable to the virus are still not vaccinated against it, several months after the vaccine rollout began. Pointing to hindsight is, in this case, a political cop-out, implying there was no way to have predicted something that everyone saw coming. Foresight is a far better thing, but the federal government is apparently incapable of using it.

From the outset of the pandemic, it was clear that aged-care workers (along with other frontline healthcare staff) needed urgent vaccinating, with their workplaces full of the people most vulnerable to COVID-19 living in close proximity, and their work involving close interaction with those at risk – not to mention a highly casualised workforce where staff regularly work across multiple facilities. Hindsight certainly shouldn’t have been needed after the multiple deadly outbreaks within aged care during Victoria’s second wave, in which 655 residents died, with 74 per cent of index cases (or “patient zero” cases) in the state’s aged-care outbreaks being a worker. It definitely shouldn’t have been needed following Victoria’s recent scare, in May, when COVID-19 again made it into the sector through staff, despite the vaccine rollout being several months in, prompting questions over the abysmal number of workers who had been vaccinated, and outrage when it was revealed in Senate estimates that the government didn’t even have exact figures.

What’s more, it’s obvious that hindsight wasn’t needed, as increased experience with the virus actually had nothing to do with the latest failure. The federal government itself declared aged-care workers a high priority in its original national roll-out strategy, with those workers sitting in Phase 1A along with residents. It’s understandable that residents would be prioritised, as Frewen argued, being the ones most at risk of dying, though why more workers weren’t vaccinated during the in-facility rollout remains unanswered. (NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard told RN Breakfast that he couldn’t understand why teams were sent in to vaccinate residents but not staff.) But resident priority does not explain why the vast majority of workers still have not been immunised, despite the rollout having moved well past Phase 1A. Australia now appears to be in Phase 2A, or something like it, with the government having apparently abandoned the original phases, and the PM having opened AstraZeneca eligibility to everyone last week (even 18-year-olds are being given Pfizer now, it seems, with one entire private-school year level in Sydney receiving permission from NSW Health to get the jab). On News Breakfast, Frewen boasted that the government was now “accelerating efforts” to get aged-care workers vaccinated, with their vaccination rate now sitting at about 36 per cent, “above the broader national average”. Of course, it should be sitting above the national average if they were in Phase 1A, and much further above it than that. What was the point of prioritising them at all?

A number of public figures have today called for a return to the original plan, under which aged-care workers are vaccinated in their workplace, rather than being forced to fight the masses at vaccination centres and GPs. We don’t need a crystal ball to tell us would have been the safest and most efficient way to get this done. Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation federal secretary Annie Butler told Guardian Australia it “makes sense” to fund the states to manage on-site vaccinations, while former health department secretary Jane Halton says there should be an in-reach program, telling the ABC that it should be made “as easy as possible”. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews today expressed his support for the idea of vaccinating some workforces on-site, calling it a “really logical thing” to do. But logical decision-making isn’t the Morrison government’s speciality.

Many kinds of avoidable but forgivable mistakes have been made in this pandemic, with some missteps only visible in the rear-view mirror, as state and federal governments learned to manage this once-in-a-century event on the fly. The failure to vaccinate aged-care workers, months into an already lagging vaccine rollout, is simply not one of them, as the need to do so went from obvious to blindingly obvious over the course of the past 18 months. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20 – which, coincidentally, is the year the rest of us grasped that aged-care workers needed to be vaccinated as soon as a vaccine became available.

“We’re just not pretending that it’s at all okay and that they’re welcome to country.”

Traditional owners have told Rio Tinto they will no longer perform welcome to country ceremonies for the company’s events, with Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation chief operating officer Tony Bevan saying large companies tend to treat the practice as a PR exercise.

“He’s not sort of a new age man, let’s put it that way. But I don’t think he’s set that [situation] up. He’s just the guy who is there at the time.”

Howard government minister Amanda Vanstone tells ABC TV’s Ms Represented that misogyny wasn’t a factor in Tony Abbott speaking at a rally in front of signs declaring then-PM Julia Gillard a “witch” and “bitch” (while acknowledging he is “probably a misogynist”).

The scientist who predicted the death of the reef
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven natural wonders of the world, but now it’s on the cusp of being declared “in danger” by UNESCO. But scientists have been warning for decades that rising sea temperatures could kill off the reef.

The “ludicrous” cost per space of one of the Coalition’s pork-barrelled commuter car parks in Melbourne – nearly three times the benchmark price.

“Business wants the Morrison government to lead the charge on abolishing state payroll taxes by helping replace the lost revenue, potentially with a GST increase, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry says.”


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The list

“In late May this year, as Melbourne was heading into another lockdown, Donoghue v. Stevenson provided the backdrop to the most significant climate case yet decided in Australia. From a courtroom on William Street, grey-haired Federal Court justice Mordecai ‘Mordy’ Bromberg delivered a brief summary of his 161-page, 70,000-word decision in Sharma v. Minister for the Environment. His ruling sought to answer an increasingly pressing question: what relevance does the Donoghue snail have in the climate change era?”

“The two modern innovations of cycling and cinema go hand in hand. We must thank French genius for bicycles, too, and publicity-seeking French sports journalists for Le Tour de France, the world’s most famous bicycle race.”

“The depth of the described failures in planning, design, governance and accountability exceed those documented in the office’s investigations into the controversial $102.5 million community sports infrastructure grants program. They are certainly also significantly worse in dollar terms than the tenfold overpayment for land in Sydney’s Leppington Triangle – involving the same department – that was documented earlier this year.”

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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