National cabinet met virtually this week with the chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, in attendance. Kelly was absent from the previous meeting, on August 31, which cut mandated Covid-19 isolation from seven to five days – a decision not supported by expert health advice.
National cabinet’s decision that day, made without the benefit of documentation including the CMO’s views, was noted as unusual by journalists at the time.
The Saturday Paper has learnt that the Albanese government was squeezed between the CMO being undecided about whether it was safe to make that cut but being inclined towards caution, and neoliberal New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet noisily pressing for the abandonment of mandated isolation altogether.
The solution? No paperwork. No Kelly. Have the acting chief medical officer, Michael Kidd, provide an oral pandemic “update” and discuss “strategies for combating” possible future Covid-19 waves instead.
It’s information ordinary Australians, currently dying from Covid-19 at the rate of more than 400 people a week, have a direct interest in hearing.
Health officials see national cabinet’s decision to maintain the seven-day isolation period in aged-care settings as confirmation that its decision to reduce isolation for everyone else is “against the evidence”.
It has potential significance beyond the pandemic, too, given that disquiet over declining government transparency was a factor in Labor’s defeat of the Morrison-led Coalition government in May.
Ministers have every right to consider the expert opinion of public servants, including the CMO, and reject it. That’s our system of government.
But Prime Minister Anthony Albanese saying the decision was “a proportionate response at this point in the pandemic”, without disclosing the absence of expert medical advice supporting the decision, is a sin of omission that risks eroding trust in this critical area of government responsibility.
It’s shaken the confidence of public health officials, too.
They are not the kind of people to leak. But among them there’s widespread disquiet that their advice is being taken with a grain of salt, and growing support for the pandemic advice they give government to be released in real time.
The Australian Medical Association (AMA) publicly called for the CMO’s advice to be made public after the national cabinet decision on August 31, so far to no avail.
There’s a growing feeling generally inside the federal Department of Health of being sidelined and a perception that Labor is privileging economic considerations above all else.
“It’s a huge issue,” says one close observer of the situation. “It feels like Treasury and Finance are running everything, telling everyone what they can and can’t do.” Health officials “don’t feel like they’re being listened to” even as they see a new Covid-19 wave emerging over the horizon in Europe – the harbinger of what early assessments suggest could begin to build in Australia from December this year.
Those inside the system, as well as experts outside the system making representations to Health Minister Mark Butler, are beginning to recalibrate their readings of his polite, non-committal reactions to briefings.
They wonder whether Butler himself is a victim of the pre-eminence of economic considerations in the Albanese government – or whether he’s been made to fall into line in the service of Labor’s drive to project and entrench an image of them as good economic managers.
Given that transparency concerns were a key factor in the Morrison government losing office, you would think they’d be a matter of meticulous attention for the new leadership. Improving transparency is not just the right thing to do but also an electoral imperative.
Labor won and formed government with a majority of just two seats against the worst government since Federation.
It has had a strong start overall. Albanese’s popularity has soared and Labor has a huge 57-point rating on a two-party preferred basis in the latest Newspoll. And it’s the two-party preferred vote that determines who wins government.
Nevertheless, that strong standing rests on Labor being only the second preference of a very large number of voters. Even after the government’s stellar start, Labor is, according to Newspoll, the first preference of just 37 per cent of voters – a precarious foundation.
The government benefits from a dysfunctional opposition led by the unpopular Peter Dutton, but unlikely duds have surprised before. Think Tony Abbott.
The one area where Labor has failed to better the Morrison government is pandemic management.
Neither Albanese’s nor Butler’s offices responded to The Saturday Paper’s request for comment.
Albanese has had a leave pass on the massive number of Covid-19 deaths, which, despite him being in office only a short time, will likely next month overtake the entire number of deaths under Scott Morrison in the pandemic’s first two years.
The leave pass has broad foundations.
Labor people worried about the government’s Covid-19 response are unwilling to criticise it publicly out of party loyalty. What’s said on WhatsApp and in Twitter DMs is another matter. Many despair over the government’s passive approach.
The Coalition and mainstream media share the neoliberal consensus favouring the “let it rip” attitude driving the mass Covid-19 deaths. So ideology is protecting the government from attacks from the usual sources.
Further to the right, in Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and beyond, is confirmed anti-vaxxer territory, so the government is safe from attack from them, too.
Reasons for the Greens’ quiescence are less clear, but the presence of the anti-vax “wellness” set in their support base could be a factor.
And the community independents? Some of these small-l liberals are happy to go along with the “live with Covid” and “personal responsibility” rhetoric. Not all of them, though.
The federal parliament’s “class of 2022” features a fair number of medical professionals who took seats off the Coalition.
The good burghers of Kooyong in Melbourne donned teal T-shirts and turfed out serving treasurer and Liberal leadership heir-apparent Josh Frydenberg in favour of physician Dr Monique Ryan.
The neighbouring seat of Higgins was won by another physician, Labor’s Dr Michelle Ananda-Rajah. Dr Gordon Reid, a GP, won Robertson on the NSW Central Coast for Labor. Just south of there another GP, Dr Sophie Scamps, won the Sydney Northern Beaches seat of Mackellar as a community independent.
They join other federal members of parliament with medical expertise, including paediatrician Dr Mike Freelander (Labor, Macarthur) and Dr Helen Haines (Independent, Indi), who is a former Chiltern Bush Nursing Hospital matron and academic with a doctorate in medical science.
Freelander chairs the house of representatives standing committee on Health, Aged Care and Sport, of which Ryan and Ananda-Rajah are now members. On September 1, Mark Butler commissioned the committee to conduct an inquiry into long Covid, and it will take submissions until November 18.
This inquiry, plus outside developments, could trigger a rethink on pandemic policy management by the government, whether it likes it or not.
Ryan and Ananda-Rajah share common ground on Covid-19. On the eve of last month’s national cabinet meeting, Ryan tweeted: “Long and recurrent COVID are a massive strain on our workforce and our economy. We need to minimise our COVID case burden: relaxing isolation rules will not do that. The evidence is clear. 5 days iso is not enough.”
The same day, Ananda-Rajah quote-tweeted Ryan’s message, adding, “5 days is not enough”. And the tweet is still there. She didn’t delete it when it became inconsistent with Labor’s position the next day.
Ryan is sceptical about prevailing economic arguments for timidity in pandemic management, and tweeted the latest United States research into the devastating impact of recurrent and long Covid on the US economy. On Wednesday she called for a national summit on Covid-19 management, a sharp juxtaposition with the government’s steady slide towards lowest-common-denominator pandemic management standards common in other countries.
Ryan will have a natural ally in the new AMA president, Dr Steve Robson. An economically literate obstetrician and gynaecologist, Robson is assembling an informal economic brains trust to inform a more comprehensive AMA critique of current government policy settings.
The final piece of the jigsaw is the emerging concept of the “pandemicene”, in which accelerating climate change is seen to be driving the development of novel, deadly and increasingly frequent pandemics. This has long been evident in the science but has not yet become part of the mainstream climate change debate.
The Greens may or may not pick up on it, but it’s unlikely to escape the eye of climate activist Senator David Pocock.
The mathematics of getting government bills through the senate makes Pocock pivotal. If the committee inquiry and the AMA’s developing critique suggest a more proactive pandemic management policy is warranted, and Pocock gets behind it, the government would need to listen carefully.
Getting the CMO’s expert advice made public at the time it’s tendered would help citizens better assess whether government policy settings are right. That seems the very least the government should do to honour the hundreds dying each week from Covid-19.
The pandemicene is here. New York right now, for example, is juggling triple threats from Covid-19, monkeypox and polio. It’s going to go on and on and on.
Governments everywhere are going to have to front up to this new normal, rather than cross their fingers and hope it’s all going away. The Albanese government is going to have to show leadership on it in a way it simply hasn’t so far.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 17, 2022 as "The Covid test".
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