A skirmish has broken out between the federal government and its former “gold standard” state, as the NSW premier pushes for more vaccines and the prime minister appears to push for a harder lockdown. After seemingly leaking against the Berejiklian government on Friday, Scott Morrison continued pushing back against NSW’s requests over the weekend (though he did offer the state 50,000 extra Pfizer doses), telling reporters that there was “no alternative to the lockdown” to get this under control, and adding that the lockdown needed to be “effectively put in place” – in what many saw as criticism of the state government’s light-handedness following violent protests. In today’s NSW press conference, Gladys Berejiklian was repeatedly asked about the PM’s position; the premier refused to be drawn, responding only that she relies on the health advice. It’s a blatantly hypocritical switch from the PM, who up until recently had been praising NSW for its resistance to locking down. (And if he does truly believe lockdowns are the solution, he really ought to be providing proper financial support, and adequately condemning members of his government who attend anti-lockdown protests.) It’s not hard to see why Morrison is taking this stance, however, as inconsistent as it is: if the solution is lockdown rather than vaccinations, then the current problems are on Berejiklian, and it takes the heat off him for the fact there aren’t enough doses to go around. Much like with his comments earlier this month – that there was no way Australia could have been vaccinated enough by now to avoid lockdowns – Morrison is unwilling to fully admit that additional vaccines would be helpful here. As usual, Morrison will do anything to make sure blame isn’t aimed at him, even if it means backflipping on hard lockdowns and critiquing a Liberal-run state government.
One of the most ludicrous aspects of Morrison’s claims – that it is lockdown, not vaccines, that NSW must use to get out of its predicament – is that, in reality, it’s not an either/or choice, and nor is the NSW government pretending it is. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews’ comments – that he wouldn’t have Victorian vaccine doses going to NSW “so they can be open while we are closed” – have been equally unhelpful, implying that Sydney will somehow not have to continue with weeks of stay-at-home orders to bring its outbreak under control. (There have also been reports that Andrews told national cabinet he might be prepared to share some doses with NSW if Berejiklian could produce modelling showing that NSW lockdown measures were working; whether or not they are working, people are in danger, and all the more so if current measures are not containing the spread of the virus.) While it’s only fair, considering how recklessly late greater Sydney was locked down, that the state continue with its suppression measures, and do its best to make sure they are actually working if it is to be given extra vaccines, there is no suggestion that the NSW government plans to use the vaccines to bring about an end to the lockdown, with the goal only to stem the rush of cases among young essential workers in hotspots. That request should only be seen as more urgent, in light of the fact that a 38-year-old woman with no pre-existing conditions died from COVID over the weekend, before she was eligible for the vaccine the federal government once told her she needed. While every effort is being made to change the poorly executed messaging around that advice, with ATAGI now urging all Sydneysiders over 18 to get any vaccine available to them, the damage appears to have been done.
And if the blame-shifting Morrison now wants to be all about lockdowns, it’s only right that he steps in and provides more federal income support to those enduring stay-at-home orders – especially in light of leaked NSW government modelling, which shows measures may last until September 17 (a date Berejiklian was keen to pour water on today). Calls for a JobKeeper-like package have continued, with the ACTU also supporting a returned boost to JobSeeker. But the federal government remains stubbornly resistant. Speaking from Melbourne this morning, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg restated JobKeeper was not coming back, claiming the disaster payments were able to be deployed faster than JobKeeper, and that those who had lost work while on welfare should be able to claim high payments through Centrelink. Communications, Urban Infrastructure, and the Arts Minister Paul Fletcher repeated the same talking points on News Breakfast, insisting this was a “more appropriate” way to distribute support. Funnily enough, both men also used their media appearances to claim that vaccines were the “clear path” – the “ticket” – out of this crisis, seemingly contradicting the PM.
No matter how Morrison wants to spin this, he still bears responsibility for Sydney’s extended lockdown – whether through his very recent insistence that lockdowns be a last resort, his stubborn refusal to “incentivise” the practice, his public cheerleading for Berejiklian’s risky approach, or his obviously botched vaccine rollout. Washing his hands of the problems around the vaccine rollout and income support only compounds his culpability. Morrison is correct when he says there is “no alternative” to lockdown at this stage; NSW can’t vaccinate its way out of this just yet (no thanks to him). But just as there is currently no substitute to lockdown here in Australia, there is also no excuse for the federal government not adequately supporting those undergoing it. There is no moral alternative.