The Politics    Friday, August 6, 2021

Zero tolerance

By Rachel Withers

Image of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian. Image via ABC News

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian. Image via ABC News

The NSW premier continues to distance herself from “COVID-zero” – should other states also be backing away?

Victorians have woken up to the first day of the state’s sixth lockdown (and a typically negative News Corp front page), while NSW recorded another record high of 291 COVID-19 cases, along with one negligent death. National cabinet – which yesterday lost its right to secrecy – is set to meet this afternoon, with tensions high over the allocation of the mysterious extra Pfizer doses. Victoria, NSW and Queensland are all expected to come asking for more. Professor of epidemiology Tony Blakely told ABC News Breakfast that the chances of Sydney’s lockdown ending this month as planned is “zero”, noting that the most likely scenario was that lockdown would continue “in some form or other” for months. But that’s not the only troublesome zero floating around today. In a morning press conference, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian gave the strongest indication yet that she had abandoned a “COVID-zero” policy, claiming that while it was still an “aspiration”, the state authorities would simply be trying to get case numbers down “as low as” they could, with vaccination rates the key (although the target of a 50 per cent vaccination rate before easing lockdown, it has been noted, has not been mentioned for days). “We now have to live with Delta, one way or another,” Berejiklian said. The NSW premier’s vaccination rhetoric continues to be out of step with that of the PM, who yesterday used Question Time to throw further shade at her emphasis on vaccination over lockdown. But some are questioning whether it’s time for other premiers to stop lionising “zero”, amid Victoria’s 24-hour fall from donut-shaped grace. Some say that state leaders are failing to prepare their citizens for the post-zero future laid out in the Doherty Institute modelling. Obviously, the goal has to be relinquished at some point. But is NSW doing it too soon? Or should other states also stop conditioning their citizens to expect a standard that is seemingly impossible to maintain, as Victoria has just learnt for the third time in 10 weeks?

COVID-zero – and the corresponding strategy of hard, early lockdowns – has now been widely accepted as the national policy goal, with the federal government’s Doherty Institute modelling showing that allowing the highly infectious Delta variant to circulate at anything less than a 70 per cent vaccination rate would have dire consequences for Australians and the healthcare system. But even as the federal government has firmed up its newfound love of hard, early lockdowns, the NSW government has continued to pull away from the national COVID-zero policy, which Berejiklian today continued to make clear was merely an “aspiration”. The reasoning for this is obvious: it appears to now be too late to strive for no new cases, at least without much more extreme measures. (Berejiklian’s most high-profile critic, Sky News political editor Andrew Clennell, has labelled her claims that Sydney’s measures were the harshest the nation had seen as “demonstrably untrue”.) But Berejiklian’s split has major implications for the citizens of NSW – not least that they will remain cut off from the rest of the country until the national targets are reached, or until Christmas at least. Accepting the virus in the community while the state vaccinates its way out of this situation will also mean many more deaths and many more people contracting “long COVID”, especially among the essential workers keeping Sydney going.

NSW has learnt the hard way that it is impossible to maintain Delta cases at a manageable level through contact tracing. Striving for zero cases is the only way to live, right now, until we’re sufficiently vaccinated. But should state leaders be doing a better job of preparing the public for what comes next, when the virus is eventually allowed to circulate and we must put zero behind us? And should they, like Berejiklian, be placing more emphasis on vaccination as the only ticket out of this, even though they still have the ability to quash outbreaks through early lockdowns? It’s clear the prime minister – who has changed his tune on “living with the virus” multiple times, and has done a terrible job of communicating the Doherty Institute modelling (even going so far as to call a press conference on it without releasing it first) – is not up to the job of preparing Australians for the next phases of the pandemic. Communicating the plan will likely come down to the premiers. The nation is expecting to hear from the prime minister after today’s national cabinet. But what will no doubt be more interesting is hearing exactly what was discussed between the leaders, now that the shroud of cabinet confidentiality has been lifted. That Administrative Appeals Tribunal decision will no doubt be appealed by a federal government with a zero tolerance for openness.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

“I am writing to ask: will you act in response to Sky News’s health misinformation during this public health emergency? If you are unable to act, what deficiencies exist in your powers that should be remedied?”

Former PM Kevin Rudd has written to the media watchdog, asking it to take tougher action on Sky News Australia. The broadcaster is set to face a Senate inquiry next week, after being temporarily suspended from YouTube.

“The Morrison Govt is supporting Victorians every step of the way.”

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The amount by which Australians are more worried about climate change than COVID-19.

“Aviation ground workers in regional airports across the country will miss out on $750 weekly payments that thousands of their colleagues doing the same job for major airlines in big cities will receive.”

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The list

“Defining Brian Houston as a pastor is like calling Rupert Murdoch a newspaper publisher. Houston and Murdoch are two unprodigal sons from the lucky country who revolutionised their fathers’ vocations, fuelled by visions of a global empire that could shape the beliefs of those who consume their seductive products.”

“Most people think it is hard to put a dollar value on a human life, but they’re wrong. It’s easy. Economists do it all the time. Most people think that all human lives are equally valuable. And most think economic modelling is boring, irrelevant to their busy lives, and unrelated to how our democracy is functioning. They’re wrong about those, too.”

Katla – named for the subglacial volcano roiling at the centre of its story – is the first Netflix original series commissioned from Iceland. Created by Baltasar Kormákur (Everest, The Deep, Jar City, Trapped), it’s set in the remote coastal town of Vík, near the volcano of that name, which in this story has been erupting for a year. In the first of eight episodes, we are introduced to Vík’s residents and their lives with a world-building skill that is rare (episode one of Mare of Easttown is the only other example within recent memory) but unsurprising from Kormákur, who has spent his career investigating the summits and nadirs of human experience.” 

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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