The Politics    Monday, May 31, 2021

It was a race

By Rachel Withers

Image of Health Minister Greg Hunt.

Health Minister Greg Hunt. Image via ABC News

And the federal government has now lost it

COVID-19 has officially re-entered the aged-care system in Victoria, where it took 655 lives last year, as three positive cases were confirmed across two federally run facilities today. There are a number of devastating factors here, compounding the horror that, once more, the virus has reached those who are most vulnerable. One is that this outbreak from South Australian hotel quarantine could have been limited had the federal government implemented national quarantine facilities, or even just national standards as experts have been calling for. The second is that casual, insecure workers were again working across multiple aged-care facilities, despite the government having changed its guidelines in response to last year’s outbreak, with no support or official policy in place to prevent it from happening. The third is that, despite being in Phase 1A, many of those living and working at the facilities in question were not fully vaccinated, including the first resident to test positive, who had received only their first shot. The new cases make a further mockery of Health Minister Greg Hunt’s misleading numbers game last week, in which he attempted to cite stats on those who had received one dose, rather than those who were fully vaccinated. The current outbreak should also put an end to the debate over whether or not the vaccine rollout is “a race”, with the acting PM, Michael McCormack, and Trade Minister Dan Tehan both pushing back against the idea over the weekend. The rollout was – at the very least – a race to vaccinate the most vulnerable before the next major outbreak took hold, and it’s a race the federal government has now lost.

In today’s marathon press conference, Victorian officials – already fuming at the federal government’s refusal to provide income support – were measured in their criticism of the Commonwealth, but keen to make clear who was at fault. When Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton was asked how he felt about workers being allowed to work across multiple sites in federally run facilities, he said it was “massively risky”, while noting repeatedly that it was a “question for the Commonwealth”. Health Minister Martin Foley noted that the Victorian government had a subsidy in place to prevent workers in state-run facilities working across multiple sites, but refused to be drawn on why Victoria couldn’t have pushed similar protocols on federal workers. “I think you’re inviting me to do two things,” he said. “One is to be critical of the Commonwealth, which I’m not going to do. I’m going to work cooperatively with the Commonwealth to address a real problem.” Federal shadow health minister Mark Butler was less reticent, arguing that the federal government had to answer for the fact that it had removed supports in place last year to prevent it from happening. “I think the government will have to give an explanation as to why that was the case,” said Butler.

The Victorian team was similarly critical when it came to the federal failings on quarantine and vaccines. Foley again stressed the need for a dedicated, high-risk quarantine facility outside of the city centre, with discussions between the federal and state government on a Mickleham facility still progressing slowly. Acting Premier James Merlino pinned the outbreak on the federal government’s overall slowness. “We would be in a very different world if we had had a successful rollout of the Commonwealth vaccination program,” he said. “It would be a very different world if we had, alongside hotel quarantine, alternative quarantine arrangements for our highest risk cohorts that travel in from overseas.”

In a later press conference, Hunt defended the federal government’s decision to reverse the rule requiring aged-care staff to stick to working in just one facility, noting that it was “absolute minority of staff” (4.7 per cent) who work across more than one facility, and argued that the state government could have enacted public-health orders against the practice if it really wanted to. Hunt also claimed yet another “record week” for vaccinations, with 630,547 Australians coming forward to be vaccinated, double the weekly figures of a month ago, though no thanks to the minister for hesitancy for that boosted uptake. Australia has finally reached the goal of 4 million doses that it was supposed to hit by the end of March, with the federal government having repeatedly played down the urgency of the rollout in the two months since it drastically missed that target. Hunt also bragged that 85 per cent of aged-care residents have now received at least one dose, at 99 per cent of facilities, with just six across the country that haven’t commenced vaccinations. Much like the “20 per cent of Australians are vaccinated” stat he recently quoted, these are misleading. As today’s cases prove, first dose or not, a terrifying number of people living and working in aged care are still dangerously unprotected. Despite the tragedy that struck the federally run aged-care system last year, and despite the fact we’ve now had vaccines for months, it’s happened again. COVID-19 has beaten the federal government’s vaccine rollout into aged care, in what was most definitely a race.

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Former attorney-general Christian Porter has dropped his defamation action against the ABC and journalist Louise Milligan, with no damages to be paid, and an editor’s note added to the online article.

“We welcome the Victorian support … It builds on the $45 billion which the Commonwealth has provided to Victoria, far and away the highest per capita economic support to any state or territory.”

Health Minister Greg Hunt echoes his federal counterparts in rebuffing Victorian requests for lockdown assistance, arguing that the state has already received more than its fair share.

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The total federal spending received by New South Wales throughout the course of the pandemic – $7 million more than Victoria, and only slightly less per capita.

“The Grattan Institute is urging the Coalition to dump some of its current initiatives and instead target the permanent intake of ‘younger, higher-skilled migrants who are best placed to benefit the Australian community in the long term’.”

The thinktank’s latest report calls for a re-evaluation of permanent skilled migration, calling for the government’s Business Investment and Innovation Program to be abolished.

The list

“From what was revealed in court, it seems that on the early evening of Wednesday, April 22 last year, the world of Richard Pusey, populated only by Richard Pusey, was a place where every possible form of justice was possessed exclusively by Richard Pusey. In this empty interior realm, moral law was coordinated to his exclusive benefit, legal justice did not exist, remunerative justice had rewarded him because he was good, and vindictive justice had eliminated his enemies.”

“What economists want for the economy is what every sports fan wants when they show up to the game: healthy competition. And yet too many industries in Australia are dominated by cosy oligopolies rather than healthy rivalry. In petrol retailing, our largest four fuel retailers have more than 70% of the market. In the US, by contrast, the biggest four petrol sellers have a combined market share below 20%.”

“Australia had gone from a November 2020 claim by Morrison that it was ‘front of the queue’ to an April 2021 update by Health secretary Brendan Murphy that this is ‘not a race’. From day one, there were supply issues – both within and outside the control of the federal government. Then came a series of communication and campaign missteps, ranging from the unfortunate to the dire.”

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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