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As Australia enters year three of the Covid-19 pandemic, case numbers are higher than ever, hospitals are being pushed to their limit and rapid tests are extremely difficult to find. Today, Rick Morton on how Covid-19 caught up with Australia this summer, and what the federal government could have done to better prepare for this moment.

Our hot Omicron summer

Read Transcript

After nearly two years of lockdowns and border closures there was hope that this summer things might be different in Australia. But then, Omicron hit. 

Now we’re entering year three of the Covid-19 pandemic. Case numbers are higher than ever, hospitals are being pushed to their limit and rapid tests are extremely difficult to find.

So how did we get here?

Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton on how Covid-19 caught up with Australia this summer, and what the federal government could have done to better prepare for this moment. 

Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper, Rick Morton.

Read Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

 

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

 

After nearly two years of lockdowns and border closures — there was hope that this summer things might be different. 

 

But then, Omicron hit. 

 

Now Australia is entering year three of the Covid-19 pandemic. Case numbers are higher than ever, hospitals are being pushed to their limit and rapid tests are extremely difficult to find.

 

So how did we get here?

 

Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton on how Covid-1 caught up with Australia this summer, and what the federal government could have done to better prepare for this moment. 

 

It’s Monday, January 24.

 

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RUBY: 

Hello Rick! How are you?

 

RICK: 

Look, I'm relaxed, somewhat. I’m back from holidays, so  it's good to be back in the routine again, which is nice. 

 

RUBY: 

It's good to hear your voice again.

 

RICK: 

Likewise, I missed our little chats. 

 

RUBY: 

Well, we missed you, too. That's why you're the very first 7am guest of 2022. 

 

RICK:

Don't lie to me. It's just because I'm writing about Covid, isn't it? I honestly thought I wouldn't have to this year… 

 

RUBY: 

Really? you thought 2022 it might all be over?

 

RICK:

No, near the end of the end of 2021, like November ish, I thought, Well, maybe it'll be OK. And then, of course, December happened, and then I was like, ‘Well, I know what I'm doing next year’. 

 

RUBY: 

Mm hmm. Hmm. Well, it is year three of the pandemic now, and I think in a lot of ways, at least here in Australia, it does seem to be the worst moment that we've been in. There are more cases, there are more hospitalisations, there are more deaths than they have been at any other point. And that in turn, is impacting our health system and our economy and all of us. It really does feel like this is the summer that COVID 19 caught up with us. So I was hoping that you could take a step back to the beginning of the summer and tell us: what were you expecting would happen?

 

RICK:

Well, you know, towards the end of last year, things were starting to look pretty good.

 

You know, after a slow start, our vaccination rates had reached well over over 90% of the eligible population being double vaccinated, which was one of the highest rates in the world. So everyone was pretty stoked, right? 

 

And they should have been because that's a huge win. And so we started to return to normal borders were opened or were due to reopen soon, restrictions were being eased and all of this was happening in the lead up to Christmas. So we had that kind of summer of fun, hot vaxxed summer vibe happening.

 

And it was a really big moment. I certainly felt the optimism in the air. I was pretty excited and people were excited to go and see their family and friends again. And it felt like the pandemic, if not behind us, was certainly merging into the rear vision mirror.

But it was also around that time that the latest variant Omicron hit our shores. 

RUBY: 

Hmm. And that moment, the moment we saw the first Omicron cases emerge in Australia, that was actually only seven weeks ago Rick… and from there we’ve seen it spread across the country, and I wonder, as we’ve seen that spread has there been a moment where you started to realise that we might be in more trouble than we thought? 

 

RICK: 

Was it only seven weeks ago when we did that? That's amazing. Yeah, it does. It feels like a lifetime ago now.

 

But you know, in the lead up to Christmas, we were seeing those enormous, really quite enormous lines outside testing centers…

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #1: 

People queuing for as long as six hours. With every testing clinic overwhelmed…

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #2: 

Before it opened at 7am, people were already being told they had to be turned away…

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Testing Site Worker: 

It's been closed down. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Commentator:

Sorry, you know, two hours ago we were here. We were told to come back in an hour….

 

RICK: 

That was the first sign that things were a little bit out of whack, almost like the canary down the coal mine.

 

And there were two major problems. One of them was the rise in cases, due to Omicron. I mean, they were just so many more people needing tests. They were not, you know, tens of thousands of people. So there were, you know, more close contacts, more casual contacts, more people with symptoms. And the other thing was that that exact policy that Queensland had, I think Tasmania had as well where they were requiring PCR tests to get across those borders. And so that puts extreme pressure on the system. 

 

I hate to use the cliche, but it really was a perfect storm, and it resulted in this extremely stressful, complicated and messy end to the year, with many people kind of missing travel, those family gatherings and holidays because of how overwhelmed that system was. 

 

RUBY: 

Yeah, it was an incredibly stressful end to the year Rick, and I think it was around this time that I got the sense that things were starting to to fall apart a bit because contact tracing had stopped and it was hard to find a test anywhere. And it was really unclear what the protocols were in terms of close contacts and quarantining. And so essentially, you had to make your own decisions and make these fairly complicated calculations about the level of risk that you were willing to take and that you're willing to take in regards to your family. And so I think that that was really stressful for a lot of people. 

 

RICK: 

Oh God, yeah. And you saw so many messages from people going, I can't get a rapid antigen test, so I'm not going to go to lunch with grandma. And I haven't seen grandma in two years, like in just so many of those kind of individual calculations.

 

And you know, that was something that the federal government was pushing very explicitly. 

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison: 

We have to move from a culture of mandates to a culture of responsibility. That's how we live with this virus into the future. 

 

RICK: 

the prime minister, Scott Morrison, said it was time for Australians to take personal responsibility.

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison: 

As a country we’ve got to get passed the heavy hand of government and we’ve got to treat Australians like adults and we all have are own responsibility in our communities and for our own health

 

RICK: 

And he placed the onus on individuals to protect themselves against the virus and by extension, their families. And he said he didn't want to implement this kind of culture of control and mandate. 

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison: 

Now in my home state, New South Wales, people are already wearing masks. They're not being fined if they don't. Because Australians know what is a common sense, responsible action to look after their own health and to look after the health of those around them. 

 

RICK:

And it was around that time that the New South Wales Health Minister Brad Hazzard, was saying that everyone in Australia will get Omicron.

 

Archival Tape -- Brad Hazzard:

Bottom line here is that we would expect that pretty well. Everybody in New South Wales at some point will get omicron. We’re all going to get Omicron! 

 

RICK: 

And it felt like everyone in Australia was getting Omicron because the case numbers were climbing every day 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #3: 

The nation today hitting an unwanted milestone of half a million COVID cases since the pandemic struck.

 

RICK: 

So it's just like it was everywhere, and you really felt like Neo in the Matrix kind of doing the bullet time dodge. 

We went from one of the most lockdowns over policed countries where $5000 fines were handed out for people leaving their 5km bubble and we pivoted to this absolute free for all, where the government is saying things like: it's fine to go to work, even if you're a close contact. And where there's a complete vacuum of any public health initiatives, it's almost like we decided that we didn't care any more. That's what it felt like anyway. 

 

RUBY: 

Mm there was, I think, a real sense of of whiplash, Rick, going from, you know, managing Coronavirus in Australia in this extremely strict way, long lockdowns, curfews, that kind of thing to where we are now, where, you know, exposure sites not really listed in places anymore. So where do you think that has left us? Where would you say that we're at right now at the beginning of 2022? 

 

RICK: 

Well, I think we're in a pretty bad way. I don't want to be alarmist about it because some things are tracking better, but there's no doubt that our health system is under immense pressure. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #4:

For the first time in Victoria's history, authorities have declared a code brown emergency for hospitals as the health system buckles under a rising wave of Omicron admissions

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #5: 

Our first statewide Code Brown, means staff from areas such as elective surgery can be moved to the most crippled part of our health system.

 

RICK: 

And of course Victoria has just implemented what they call a Code Brown, and that will last for several weeks, at least.

 

Meanwhile, rapid antigen tests are hard to come by, and there are supply shortages of all sorts of goods because of workers who have been holding up this paper thin supply chain for the last two and a half three years falling sick or they close contacts.

 

So it remains unclear how this is all going to play out in 2022. And you know, I think you'd be a mug if you tried to predict anything with any sense of accuracy.

 

RUBY: 

We'll be back after this. 

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RUBY: 

Rick, it's notoriously difficult to predict how the pandemic is likely to play out, but if we look at just the coming weeks, what do we know about what's likely to happen with the Omicron wave and when it might actually end?

 

RICK: 

Yeah, Omicron is a really interesting base because it's so transmissible, but that has kind of led to a kind of a flash and burn type effect in other jurisdictions around the world. Now, whether that's because of other measures, or purely because of the biology of the virus, remains to be seen. But health authorities across Australia have said that, you know, this country seems to be nearing the peak of the Omicron wave. Some people believe the peak may have already arrived. 

 

Brett Sutton, for example, Victoria's chief health officer, said that the states Omicron wave may already be in the process of flattening and falling

 

Archival Tape -- Brett Sutton: 

Clearly, the picture from around the world, South Africa peaked in a reasonably short period of time. The UK looks to have peaked. Some states in the US, New York, New Jersey look to be peaking with their case numbers. 

 

RICK: 

The chief medical officer for Australia, Paul Kelly, recently said that New South Wales is close to peaking if it hasn't already.

 

Archival Tape -- Paul Kelly: 

The actual forecasting based on actual numbers of cases, leads me to believe that we are close to the peak of this wave in terms of cases. 

 

RICK: 

But the surge in hospital admissions is still growing and we can expect to see that at least if it doesn't keep growing massively, it won't fall sharply over the coming weeks because we still get a lot of cases out there in the community. 

 

Omicron is a less severe variant of the coronavirus, but because of the sheer numbers, we're still seeing those extraordinary numbers of people going into hospital. 

 

The hospital system doesn't care about the kind of relative severity of variants. It cares about absolute numbers and that's the problem we've got with the system right now, which is under extreme stress.

 

RUBY: 

Mmm. Right. So we have hospitalisations continuing to rise, but the hope is that we are reaching the peak of the Omicron wave now or that we will soon. But it does kind of seem like on one hand, the government has been saying that everyone is going to get COVID 19 now. But on the other hand, they haven't actually planned very well for that reality. So why aren't there more things in place that would help mitigate the impact of the spread, things like more tests and potentially more capacity at hospitals? Because it seems like there are a lot of practical things that could help that could be in place that just aren't. 

 

RICK: 

Yeah, it's kind of a running theme of this whole pandemic, certainly in the Australian context.

 

I mean, you can actually plot it. There are multiple points over the last three years where the federal government we've kind of didn't expect anything major to happen. 

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison: 

All of our response to this and particularly our clinical response on the ground continues to be proving highly effective in containing the impacts of this coronavirus…

 

RICK: 

Then we started having cases in Australia in March 2020.

 

And then, of course, the prime minister was at the footy or was going to go to the footy and then bang snap lockdown. 

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison: 

Australia is weathering this storm better than many and better than most. 

 

RICK: 

And then that first wave passed.

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison: 

So today our focus is on the road back. Today, We have put Australia in a position to go forward. We have strengthened our health system and put the protections in place. 

 

RICK: 

 And for whatever reason, they thought maybe things were better again . 

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison: 

We are well ahead of where we'd hoped to be.

 

RICK: 

And then of course, we had new outbreaks

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison: 

We are in a tough, tough fight with this delta strain. A tough fight.

 

Archival Tape --  Scott Morrison: 

And Omicron we all agree presents another new challenge, but we have faced so many challenges already… 

 

RICK: 

You know, the vaccines didn't get underway as fast as we would have liked them to have done. The rapid antigen tests were not ordered.

 

So, you know, at every turn, it's like they expected things to get better. And you know, I love to be an optimist. I love to think things are ultimately going to be okay and they will be. But you still need to prepare for these things. You can't just say things are going to be OK and then turn off the tap of government support because the government support is the thing that makes things better. 

 

The thing that I think frustrates me personally watching all of this unfold is that there seems to be a dichotomy in the argument, which is that you have one or the other. And it's I don't think that's ever been the case, and the government can't fully get out of the way here because this is their one job. This is what they meant to do.

 

RUBY: 

So, Rick, when this wave, the Omicron wave eventually does wane, what do you think is likely to happen next? Because it seems like this likely won't be the last strain of COVID 19 that we will experience. So do you think that we're going to learn from the way we've approached this summer with Omicron? Do you think that will adapt? 

 

RICK: 

Yeah, I mean, look, I mean, number one, I would love to see us stop making the old mistakes. Failure to purchase the right supplies as they're needed. PPE in 2020. Vaccines in 2021. Rapid antigen tests at the end of 2021. You know, it's a theme. Happy for us to make all the new mistakes. You know, new mistakes are due to things that are, you know, novel, but we shouldn't be making the old ones. 

 

And, you know, the New South Wales Health Chief Health Officer, Dr Kerry Chant, I think, said only a couple of days ago that certainly New South Wales and probably the rest of the country, we will see more waves of infections, possibly with new strains this year, and things are going to be a bit bumpy. So 2022 is not the end as much as we would all like it to be. 

 

So we need to make sure testing is adequate. We need to make sure that isolation is appropriate, but not onerous, because you do very much risk losing the will of the people at this point, because people have been through a lot.

 

But I think the overriding lesson is that the pandemic is not over. And I think where we've gotten in trouble in the past is thinking that after every kind of difficult challenge that it is over and it's not.

 

So difficult as it might be, I think we need to inhabit that mindset for a bit that we are still in this and we certainly are not living in a time where it's OK for governments to abrogate their responsibility to their citizens. 

 

RUBY: 

Rick, thank you so much for your time today. It's great to have you back. 

 

RICK: 

Thanks, Ruby. It's good to be back. 

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RUBY: 

Also in the news today…

 

Schools across New South Wales and Victoria are in the process of handing out millions of rapid antigen tests to parents ahead of the start of term one.

 

All students and staff members will be required to complete the rapid tests twice a week for at least the first month of the school year.

 

And the head of Tennis Australia, Craig Tiley, has blamed “miscommunication” and “forever changing conditions” for the Novak Djokovic saga that overshadowed the start of this year’s Australian Open.

 

Tiley also shot down reports Djokovic was planning to sue Tennis Australia and said he hoped the world number one would be back next year.

Make sure you stay up to date with 7am by following us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. You can follow us on Instagram as well - we’re @7ampodcast.

I’m Ruby Jones, see ya tomorrow.

 

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Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am.