State, territory and federal leaders are setting aside party politics to try to manage the Covid-19 pandemic. By Karen Middleton.

Inside Morrison’s Covid-19 war cabinet

There was a marked shift in message, and in tone, when Scott Morrison gave a coronavirus update alongside chief medical officer Brendan Murphy on Wednesday. The prime minister was frank about the risks and consequences of Covid-19, more than he had been at any other time since the virus emerged.

The joint news conference came the morning after the newly convened wartime-style national cabinet – with Morrison, the state premiers and the territory chief ministers – had met for the second time in four days. The group includes five Labor members and four Liberals.

Their 8pm teleconference stretched late into Tuesday night, as the leaders agreed to further restrict mass gatherings and visits to aged-care facilities and thrashed out their eventual decision not to close schools. The importance of straightforward public communication was discussed.

The firm view was put – and agreed to – that clearer and more direct information, accompanied by explanations, was required.

Since Morrison announced last week that he was rebadging the existing Council of Australian Governments as a “national cabinet” to respond to the virus, mixed messaging between the different levels of government has been reduced.

The national cabinet now meets by teleconference every Friday, and more often as required. Tuesday’s decisions saw officials dispatched to work on detailed recommendations for yesterday’s meeting on how to implement the 100-person limit on indoor gatherings indefinitely.

“Whatever we do, we’ve got to do for at least six months,” Morrison said. “Six months.”

The Saturday Paper has been told the prime minister is actively soliciting the views of all other leaders during these meetings, but Gladys Berejiklian from New South Wales and Daniel Andrews from Victoria are particularly influential.

Representing the smallest jurisdiction, the Australian Capital Territory’s Labor chief minister, Andrew Barr, said politicking was being set aside.

“If you were looking in on that room from another planet or another country and you didn’t know the politics of the politicians sitting around that table, you still wouldn’t know,” he told ABC Radio on Monday.

The national cabinet now sits atop the decision-making hierarchy in managing the pandemic in Australia.

It takes advice from the Australian health protection principal committee, a permanent group comprising the Commonwealth’s chief medical officer and his state and territory counterparts.

That committee is drawing on the expertise of virologists, epidemiologists and others with specialist pandemic knowledge.

They include Allen Cheng, an infectious diseases professor at Monash University, and Jodie McVernon, a professor of epidemiology at Melbourne University’s Peter Doherty Institute.

McVernon, who models disease progression, is part of an informal international working group that was set up by the World Health Organization in mid-January to study Covid-19.

Within that, a smaller working group is focused on preparedness and the likely impact on health systems and societies across the globe.

McVernon is also part of a network of 16 Australian modellers from five universities that undertakes planning work for the federal government. Their work is being used to support the decision-making.

In the first week of February, the Australian group convened at the Health Department and produced scenario advice for federal cabinet’s national security committee.

“We converged early on the expectation that this was the worst case we were preparing for,” McVernon told the National Press Club this week.

She emphasised the group is not predicting what will happen in Australia, but rather helping to form a picture of what is happening.

The national cabinet’s objective is to “flatten the curve”, or slow the infection rate, not to eliminate the virus.

Any containment strategy will need to be able to remain until a vaccine is found or “herd immunity” is achieved.

In the absence of that, decisions are focused on trying to keep infections at a manageable rate.

If that works, it will prevent the health sector being swamped.

The more cases presenting at once, the more pressure on medical personnel, facilities and equipment, and the greater the likelihood that unpalatable triaging will be required – decisions about who is treated and who is not.

More people are likely to die from the virus under a mass-casualty scenario than if the same number of infections is spread out over time.

The Saturday Paper has been told that while the national cabinet discussed herd immunity from the virus, it did not consider adopting the initial British proposal – now abandoned – of trying to develop it.

Such a move would ultimately protect the community but cost the lives of many vulnerable people on the way.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 21, 2020 as "Cabinet building".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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