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A cascading series of crises, across various sectors, has undone any pretence that the government is managing the pandemic. By Wendy Bacon.

Let it rip: the week it started to fall apart for Morrison

Five-year-old Dorothy McDonald receives a vaccine at Canterbury Hospital, Sydney.
Credit: David McDonald

As predicted by many experts across many different fields, the Covid-19 pandemic in Australia lurched out of control this week.

By Wednesday, thousands of aged-care residents and people with disabilities were infected and isolated in their rooms. Hundreds of childcare centres were closed. More than 10,000 hospital and ambulance workers were unable to work. GPs and pharmacies were overrun. Businesses were closing. Supply chains were breaking down. Community centres were reporting increasing needs for food distribution. Covid-19 was reportedly breaking out among detainees at the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Sydney and the Maribyrnong Community Residential Facility in Melbourne.

The number of cases, hospitalisations, admissions to intensive care and deaths are all rising, although at different rates. Meanwhile, many cannot access vaccinations, or PCR or rapid antigen tests (RATs), to protect themselves, their families and their work colleagues.

It is clear that a series of overlapping crises are now unfolding. It is a situation governments had not prepared for or even contemplated. Those who were accused of scaremongering with predictions of 25,000 cases a day now look cautious. In New South Wales, the number is four times that.

The Covid-19 crisis has affected every community and individual but some much harder than others. Its impacts leverage chronic health issue and social inequities. If you are poor, you are more likely to die or suffer severely. “We are in a deep crisis,” Cassandra Goldie, chief executive of the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), tells The Saturday Paper. “Those with the least suffer the most.”

Goldie is scathing about the lack of planning, acceptance of advice and accountability that has contributed to the crisis. Her council represents thousands of organisations advocating and providing services for people affected by disadvantage and inequality. “Unless governments take responsibility for managing this distressing situation,” she warns, “we’ll see an increasingly confused, stressed and divided community dealing with devastating consequences.”

It is for these reasons that Goldie sent a letter to national cabinet, asking for an urgent meeting with Prime Minister Scott Morrison and all of the premiers and chief ministers.

The message to the prime minister and premiers was clear: a laissez-faire approach to lifting restrictions and leaving responsibility to the “private sector and market forces” does not work. Instead, Goldie called for “clear and cohesive government planning and a strengthened level of co-ordination through national cabinet” and to learn from the experience of the past two years by heeding “the advice of health experts and policy advocates” and “adopting strategies to mitigate health risks, economic chaos and social disruption”.

The letter went further than broad prescriptions. It recommended 42 specific policies and the establishment of a “Civil Society Rapid Response” group, including welfare agencies, unions, business and health experts, to advise governments. It explicitly rejects the re-establishment of the National Covid-19 Co-ordination Commission – later the National COVID-19 Commission Advisory Board – which was criticised by ACOSS and many others for lacking transparency, being unrepresentative and a de facto lobby group for big business, including fossil fuel interests.

The ACOSS policy recommendations are organised across health, education, social security, essential services, aged care, disability, First Nations communities and emergency accommodation for women and children who are exposed to violence. They include the restoration of the economic support systems that were cut when vaccination rates reached targets, pandemic leave payments for all affected workers, a suspension of “mutual obligations” that require Centrelink recipients to unnecessarily visit offices and workplaces, free RATs to be mailed to all residents, equitable access to protective equipment, “fast and equitable vaccination for children”, including in schools, and measures to prevent inequitable access in remote and rural communities.

The underlying principles of equity, collaboration, social support, transparency and clarity of information are unlikely to appeal to Morrison. When asked at a media conference last week about his “let it rip” approach, the prime minister said he preferred the words “pushing through” Covid-19. That echoed his earlier announcement, when lifting restrictions amid escalating case numbers four weeks ago, that we had no choice but to “ride the wave”.

Waves are something you surf across the surface of, something you can’t modify or influence. The message in his deliberately chosen words is that the pandemic is beyond our intervention, that all we can do is skim across its surface and hope to survive, and, perhaps for the more skilful, even prosper. In this view, governments are now largely irrelevant to the progress of the viral wave, performing a delicate balancing act as they are carried forward, rather than actively seeking to intervene and direct the spread and severity of impacts.

Morrison prefers the role of waiting for issues to arise and then managing them. He plays catch-up by tweaking settings. Witness the national cabinet’s arbitrary restriction of the definition of “close contact” to four hours with household members while excluding workplaces and other places where people interact closely with each other for hours at a time. So, too, the decision to make rapid antigen tests free for some after they have already become scarce and expensive, despite warnings that we would need to rely on them six months ago. This scheme was meant to be set up in two weeks. A week after the announcement, pharmacies in Sydney had received no correspondence about it.

Very few politicians openly espouse a “let it rip” policy. The term was first used in 2020 to describe the more extreme anti-restrictions response in comparison to socially restrictive policies. The Australian politician who comes closest to outright espousal is New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet – wide-eyed, always confident and always talking about “moving through into the future”. His decisions have affected all other states and territories. He conveys the impression that getting through the pandemic is more about our spirit and attitude than government policies. He expresses his complete commitment to every passing policy with a religious fervour. Last week, he wouldn’t even admit that his opening-up decisions had affected the scale of the pandemic. This posed the question of whether policies are relevant at all. Like Morrison, he is unlikely to be attracted to Goldie’s approach.

On December 15, as Omicron cases escalated, with one pub alone reporting 46 infections, Perrottet was asked by the media about rising numbers. He made an extraordinary plea, exhorting the media to “shift the thinking on the news tonight”. He said, “Can we please shift the thinking from case numbers to ICU presentations and hospitalisations?” This episode reinforces the impression that Perrottet is more about shaping the world as he would like it to be than following science and actual events. Fortunately, most people in NSW have put themselves into what is being called a “shadow lockdown” in an effort to stem the tide.

Numbers of cases always matter in a pandemic. Last week, with contact and tracing in collapse, national cabinet abandoned the system of PCR testing and recommended RATs for most people, who would be required to register them with their state and territory governments. It took a week for NSW to announce its mandatory reporting system, which meant thousands of cases will never be recorded or on people’s medical records.

At a media conference on Wednesday to announce the system, Perrottet was supported by Victor Dominello, the minister for Customer Service. Dominello explained away the fact that NSW was a week behind Victoria and other states in providing a way for positive rapid antigen tests to be registered, pointing to what he called the “seamless” Service NSW app. Revealingly, he later described a $1000 penalty for failure to register a positive RAT outcome as more about “messaging” than action. It’s a message that carries a different meaning if you are poor. What is the point of establishing a rule the state won’t enforce?

When you go to the app, it is not nearly as seamless or simple as he made it sound. You need to fill in a form with your medical background. There is a warning that giving “false or misleading information” could lead to a fine of $22,000 or up to two years in prison. Then you wait for 48 hours to find out if you are considered a risk or a potential candidate for an approved therapy, which is supposed to be more effective if you get it early. If you don’t hear back, you know you are regarded as “low risk” and on your own. This arrangement is a far cry from Morrison’s advice just to “ring your GP”.

There is a jarring gap between the confident media conferences and the stories from stressed nurses on the ground talking about the actual risks to patients with and without Covid-19 at major hospitals, particularly in Sydney’s west and south-west. The hidden world, in between the coalface and government, is occupied by public servants and people working for contractors who are not allowed to speak to the media.

Sometime in the future we will find out more about how these decisions were made, likely through senate inquiries, state parliamentary inquiries, media investigations and perhaps a royal commission. In the meantime, the upbeat NSW press conferences seem so out of touch that they begin to look like satire.

In Western Sydney, which was subject to lockdowns and a curfew last year, the talk this week was all about desperate searches for rapid antigen tests. A man who was unable to leave work had been unable to find RATs, which he needed to show that his family did not have Covid before taking his child to a medical specialist’s appointment. The cost would be at least $45. Without the test, the appointment would be cancelled.

It is clear that not only are RAT prices being marked up but photos show some have been repackaged for price gouging, which has not been stopped although it is outlawed. Facebook forums are offering community advice on when and where to get stock. They also reveal huge confusion about changing rules and the reliability of tests.

While Perrottet and Dominello were spruiking the NSW performance, the Victorian deputy premier, James Merlino, was giving a media conference. Victoria’s health system is also in crisis, with thousands of hospital workers out of the system, but Merlino’s style was much more low key. He announced some new practical measures, including 1000 more people to help with vaccinations. At a superficial level, at least, there seems to be a little more openness.

The pandemic is masking some other political issues  while at the same time being exacerbated by them. This week it was reported that for the sixth straight year, the world’s oceans were warmer than at any time before. Global emissions are not going down. A little further afield and barely reported in Australia, Covid-19 cases are rising and floods are continuing in Fiji, forcing climate change refugees to take shelter in schools. These same people had already been displaced a year earlier by Cyclone Ana.

When testing clinics closed in Adelaide due to heat this week, we were reminded that crises of pandemics and climate intersect in mundane and troublesome ways. Adelaide itself has remained relatively unscathed by the virus, with closed borders and people continuing to use QR codes and masks while they push up vaccination rates. But now there are thousands of cases. Out in the hot regions there are vulnerable First Nations communities where only two-thirds of the adult population are double vaccinated, leading to fear about what will happen if Covid spreads, just as it did last year in western NSW.

South Australia is heading into an election in March. The state premier, Steven Marshall, presents as mild compared with the hard tones of Perrottet in NSW. Earlier this week, he said he didn’t want to make it mandatory to report positive RAT results, but in the face of strong advice from the chief health officer, Nicola Spurrier, who pushed for mandatory reporting, he changed his mind.

Now, if you don’t report a positive result, there can be a fine of up to $1000. As with the rest of the country, SA is way behind in the distribution of RATs, with only one place in Adelaide offering a free test. This is in an inner-city park, 30 kilometres from where many of Adelaide’s lower-income residents live in the north. Many rural communities are without supplies. Parents in inner Adelaide who spoke to The Saturday Paper had spent hours searching for vaccinations for primary school children. With an election in March, Marshall will be acutely aware that he will be assessed for his management of the pandemic.

Federal Labor has stepped up its criticism of the Morrison government’s Covid-19 failures but has so far been vague or non-responsive when asked directly about what it would do differently if in office. For example, Clare O’Neil, shadow minister for Aged Care Services, offered a scathing critique of government performance on ABC Radio National’s RN Breakfast this week. She exposed the winding back of vaccinations in aged-care services over the holidays and described how residents had been left sitting isolated in distressing, unsanitary situations. But when asked what she would do differently, she diverted to current government failures. The shadow minister for Health, Mark Butler, took a similar approach when questioned on the ABC’s 7.30.

While this may or may not be a safe political course, voters and journalists will increasingly demand to know what the opposition would do if in office, especially as it becomes clear “living with Covid” is not really returning to normal but living with uncertainty in a context of other ongoing disasters.

A significant amount of work and co-operation led to ACOSS’s portfolio of 42 policies. It seems that whether Morrison likes it or not, a Civil Society Rapid Response group will be set up and one can imagine pressure continuing to be applied for the implementation of such policies, especially in the lead-up to the federal election.

When The Saturday Paper asked Goldie whether she would approach Labor and the Greens if she did not get a satisfactory response to her letter, she said she would “wait and see” but that “every single one of us needs to be accountable to each other and act with social responsibility to reduce the damage on vulnerable communities caused by the pandemic”.

An operative word here is “social”. The stark polarity between social and personal responsibility is what the politics of this pandemic is boiling down to. In this set of cascading crises, the difference may well decide the election.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 15, 2022 as "The week it started to really fall apart".

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Wendy Bacon is a journalist. She was a professor of journalism at the University of Technology Sydney.