The entire nation remains on high alert, with the Delta variant of COVID-19 now in most capital cities, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison calling an emergency national cabinet meeting for 5.30pm this evening. Almost every premier held a press conference today, as new measures or border restrictions rolled in across the country: masks are now mandatory indoors in Perth, Queensland and the ACT, and will soon be required in high-risk settings in South Australia, while the Northern Territory has extended its lockdown to Friday. Victoria (which announced there are no active cases left from its earlier Delta outbreak) expanded its border restrictions, with security being ramped up on the northern border, including helicopter support. NSW’s press conference (at which 18 new cases were announced, all but one linked) was by far the most compelling, with revelations of nude sunbathers being fined after being startled by a deer and getting lost in the bush, and a man attempting to serve NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller a cease-and-desist notice. But the most interesting revelation from NSW’s rollercoaster presser related to the West Hoxton superspreader event, with Health Minister Brad Hazzard revealing that there were seven vaccinated healthcare workers at the house party, and not one of them became infected despite 24 unvaccinated attendees catching the virus. The revelation should put to rest the federal government’s ridiculous claims that higher vaccination rates would not prevent outbreaks. Vaccines work. The virus was free to spread unchecked around Sydney, and now the country, because the federal government didn’t push for more of them.
The federal government has continued to suggest that a higher vaccination rate might not have made a difference, pushing its favoured line about cases still occurring in the highly vaccinated United Kingdom – a line parroted by the prime minister as the NSW outbreak worsened over the past week. Speaking on ABC radio and various breakfast shows this morning, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg argued that the new strain was more contagious, and pointed to the UK’s 18,000 new cases recorded yesterday, claiming that 80 per cent of its population had received a single dose and 60 per cent two doses (a wildly inaccurate figure, for the record, with Frydenberg failing to specify that these figures related only to the adult population). As well as throwing pointless doubt over the effectiveness of the vaccine in preventing transmission, the government’s preferred statistic ignores the very different circumstances that the UK finds itself in, with the virus still circulating widely in the community, and able to reach plenty of people who aren’t vaccinated. It also ignores the other benefits of the vaccine, with studies finding that both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines are highly effective in preventing people from falling seriously ill: Pfizer is 96 per cent effective against hospitalisation, and AstraZeneca is at 92 per cent. It’s true that vaccines don’t completely prevent transmission, though it’s clear they do limit the chances, as the West Hoxton party has shown. But the more Australians are vaccinated, the less need there would be to lock down to protect the vulnerable, and the easier it would be to contain small outbreaks. The federal government will do anything – including throw doubt over the efficacy of vaccination – to ignore that fact.
Every outbreak of the virus so far this year has been the result of human error, though how willing the population is to forgive those errors depends on the severity of the outbreak, the type of error and whether Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews is involved. But with only 4.7 per cent of the Australian population vaccinated, months after vaccines became available, and with the first purpose-built quarantine facility still months away, the federal government bears growing responsibility for each and every outbreak. The states know it, currently none more so than New South Wales, which today continued its restrained criticism of its federal Coalition colleagues. “The New South Wales government can’t control the supplies or doses we get,” said Premier Gladys Berejiklian, calling for the federal government to ramp up the GP-administered wing of the vaccine distribution program it insisted on managing. “At the moment, we don’t have enough GPs signed up,” she noted. Unions, meanwhile, are calling for a vaccine mandate for airline crews, as well as a half day of paid vaccination leave, in order to boost rates and better protect the population. But it will still be many months before widespread vaccination is even possible.
This evening’s emergency meeting of national cabinet is expected to be tense, as states demand more vaccine supplies and Queensland demands the abolition of hotel quarantine entirely. The agenda currently includes a briefing from Commonwealth CMO Paul Kelly and Lieutenant General John Frewen, and discussions around introducing post-quarantine testing on day 16, mandating vaccinations for aged-care staff, and testing and vaccinating all those who work in the quarantine system. But as the ABC’s Sabra Lane repeatedly asked the treasurer on this morning’s AM, what can cabinet or national cabinet actually do at this stage to counter this outbreak? “Can you get more vaccines right now?” she asked, with Frydenberg struggling to answer, once again offering up his misleading UK stat. With the virus having grown more contagious, and states now struggling to hold it at bay, all the nation wants from the federal government right now is more doses. The only things it has to offer are blame-shifting and lies.