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Columnist for The Saturday Paper Chris Wallace on the end of Anthony Albanese’s honeymoon and the urgent work ahead for the new government.

What Anthony Albanese needs to do about Covid-19

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Anthony Albanese returned from Europe this week to several crises sweeping the country.

Floods have devastated communities on the east coast, and now two new subvariants of Omicron have health authorities warning another wave of Covid-19 infections is only ramping up.

Today, columnist for The Saturday Paper Chris Wallace on the end of Anthony Albanese’s honeymoon and the urgent work ahead for the new government.

Socials: Stay in touch with us on Twitter and Instagram.

Guest: Columnist for The Saturday Paper Chris Wallace.

Read Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

##RUBY:
From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones, this is *7am*. 

Anthony Albanese returned from Europe this week to several crises sweeping the country.

Floods have devastated communities on the East coast, and now two new sub variants of Omicron have health authorities warning another wave of infections is only just beginning.

Today, columnist for *The Saturday Paper* Chris Wallace on the end of Anthony Albanese’s honeymoon and the urgent work ahead for the new government.

It’s Friday July 8. 

[Theme Music Ends]

##Archival tape -- News presenter 1:
“Australia's COVID surge has taken a dramatic spike as a contagious new strain of the virus sweeps across the state…”

##Archival tape -- News presenter 2:
“Hospitalisations are set to peak again at the end of this month and into August…”

##Archival tape -- News presenter 3:
“In the past 24 hours, more than 10,000 people tested positive to COVID 19…”

##RUBY:
Chris, right now we're seeing COVID numbers rise and it looks like hospitalisations from this latest wave are going to peak in July. And that's obviously starting to concern a lot of people, particularly those who work in our health care system. However, we don't really seem to be hearing a lot about it from politicians, do we?

##CHRIS:
It's surprising, isn't it? The politicians, both state and federal, are being pretty inert on what’s a serious situation. And set to get worse with the BA 4 and 5 sub variants of Omicron. 

##Archival tape -- Brad Hazzard:
“Seems like old times. And it is old times, because we’re back to where we were… in some ways anyway, back to January…”

##CHRIS:
There's been a few initiatives. For example, this week in Sydney, Health Minister Brad Hazzard and New South Wales Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant held a press conference…

##Archival tape -- Kerry Chant:
“So I'm concerned about this picture and I'm calling on the community to do a few things to protect yourself and each other. It's essential that you stay up to date with your vaccinations…”

##CHRIS:
It wasn't quite like the press conferences of the old days, but at least there was some concern expressed about the number of hospitalisations. Some say they'll peak in July. Others say because of the new variants, it could be as late as October. 

##Archival tape -- Brad Hazzard:
“Again, Dr. Chant and I spent many, many months talking about the need to wash hands, to stay home, if you're ill, to do the basics…”

##CHRIS:
But even now, Ruby, a thousand Australians are dying of or with COVID every three weeks. A phenomenal number of deaths. That's a busload of people going over the cliff every day in Australia.

##Archival tape -- Brad Hazzard:
“…and I think that perhaps to some degree because people have become a little I mean, is it apathetic? It's certainly…it's an overconfidence that the pandemic has come and gone. It hasn't. It's well and truly here. So please go back to those basic messages.”

##CHRIS:
I suspect the politicians are so afraid of the unpopularity that mandates and lockdowns in the past brought them. But there's a false binary here. You know, it's not a matter of mandates or not. There's a lot that can be done beyond that. Now, redundant binary choice as we face this latest big COVID hit.

##RUBY:
And Chris, I don't think that anyone really wants to see the virus becoming the kind of political issue that it did at times last year and also the year before. But as you say, this particular upcoming winter wave means that it is inevitable, isn't it, that COVID 19 and the way in which we choose to handle it will end up back on the national agenda?

##CHRIS:
Well, the hopeful sign on that front is that we've now got a federal government which is not interested in politicking against the states. But a big problem is that for a very long time now, hospitals have been understaffed by design. That is, they've been being run on such a lean cut of resourcing that even in good times they were sometimes struggling. So after decades of funding neglect, the hospital system is incredibly strained. Workers are exhausted. They're exhausted before. Then the pandemic hit, they reached breaking point. They're still going pretty much at that pace. Now they're beset by an incredible wave of staff absenteeism, often because of COVID infections. So, you know, the breakdown of the health system is happening slowly before our very eyes. It's beyond boiling frog - I think the water in the cauldron is now bubbling pretty energetically, but politicians aren't doing enough in terms of addressing that fundamental systemic problem. And of course, this is feeding into a kind of compound effect through the economy. The health system’s not coping. Mass-absenteeism because of COVID through the economy is affecting not only service delivery in places like hospitals, but physical products, supply chains. And of course, this creates scarcity. And what does scarcity create? Well, it contributes to inflation. So one of the biggest economic challenges the Albanese Government faces in dealing now with Australia's rising inflation threat is actually interlocked with lots of health issues that may not seem on the surface to be related but actually intimately are.

##RUBY:
Mmm multiple interlocking challenges then for the government, but when we focus on the Covid situation for a moment, how should the government be handling this? Because at this point the appetite for mandates and the justification for them as well has well and truly passed. So when we say that the government should be trying to curb this wave, what kinds of measures are on the table? 

##CHRIS:
Politicians right now, when they do talk about COVID, are focussing and this is a correct focus on the fact that so few people have had their third booster shot. Only about 70% have had their third booster. And of course, you know, politicians are holding press conferences and saying, well, have you a booster shot? But is that the kind of communication required to make it happen? One thing that seems really obvious is that the federal government needs to have a massive, persuasive, sustained public health campaign that explains and encourages people to do what works best against COVID for themselves, individually and for us collectively. And those things are distance, fresh air, masks - on a voluntary basis, not mandated - but masks that are N95 variety, rather than the leaky surgical masks that just don't do the job well enough against COVID, and vaccinations. 

So if the government could get a big, persuasive public health campaign going of the kind they've done many times before, you'd remember ‘Slip, Slap, Slop’, you’d remember the AIDS campaign during the HIV outbreak. Government has done this before. They've done it really well. And so to explain and encourage mass action in our individual and collective interests. Federal governments know how to do it. Health Minister Mark Butler needs to take a look at the playbook and do it again around COVID. Otherwise, this busload of people a day who are dying in Australia will keep being delivered to the morgue.

##RUBY:
We'll be back in a moment. 

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##RUBY:
Chris, the latest wave of COVID 19 infections is having big public health repercussions. But as always in this pandemic, there's also the economic impact to factor in as well. And this week we saw more bad news for household budgets with the rate hike by the Reserve Bank. So just how big is this challenge for the Federal Government at the moment? 

##CHRIS:
It's big. And you've really got to feel compassion for incoming Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Treasurer Jim Chalmers. What incoming Australian Prime Minister and Treasurer ever faced three sharp interest rate rises in under three months as they have? Two of those since Labor assumed office. And it's not like it's their fault, right? Most people understand the current inflation threat as being mostly driven by external factors and of course the Ukraine war and the energy price shock. That is certainly a big factor. And you see that in what's happening around the world with energy prices and inflation. But a lot of it is home grown, too. It's not being talked about that three terms of coalition obstruction of a smooth shift for Australia to a renewable energy base has made its own contribution to higher energy prices and fuel prices in Australia right now. And it's really interesting to look at that in the election context. You look at a seat like Macquarie in New South Wales which is currently submerged under massive flood waters for the third time in a year. That used to be a Liberal seat. And just a couple of elections ago it became a marginal Labor seat and now the local member Susan Templeman has made it a safe Labor seat. And I think, you know, you're seeing voters through the ballot box say we've had enough of this, we understand how climate policy is in fact making our lives very difficult and we know we're not up for bad climate policy anymore. So to the extent that that helped create a change of government and will lead to better climate policy, that's a good thing. 

##RUBY:
And climate policy is very much on the agenda again right now, because we're seeing these terrible floods around Sydney and up and down the East Coast, places like Newcastle and and the South coast as well. 

##CHRIS:
That's true. And of course, if we'd acted when we know we should have, this would have been a lesser problem. But the Albanese Government has the job of literally mopping up the mess of the Coalition's climate and energy policies now. And you can't act quickly enough to stop these, these repeated floods across the East Coast that are just causing so much damage.

##RUBY:
And Chris Anthony Albanese was still in Europe during much of the recent flooding. And there's been some media who've questioned his absence and tried to draw this comparison to when Scott Morrison was on holiday in Hawaii back in the summer bushfires of 2019. Do you think that that's a fair comparison? 

##CHRIS:
It's complete bunkum.

##Archival tape -- News presenter 4:
“Is it bad optics, do you think it's bad optics?”

##Archival tape -- News presenter 5:
“Of course it's bad. All they needed was a stiff southerly to go through Sydney Harbour and it was Scott Morrison's fault, according to Anthony Albanese when he was in opposition to this…”

##Archival tape -- Angus Taylor:
“30,000 people have been told to evacuate their homes, but the PM's more concerned about his reputation on the global stage than making a call like that and making sure people in New South Wales have a place to sleep…”

##CHRIS:
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton actually brought some credit to himself before Albanese went on this latest European trip and said it was a good thing. It was a smart move for Albanese to go to Paris and he actually endorsed the trip. So Albanese goes off to Europe. What happens? Dan Tehan, a Liberal frontbencher, decides to run this attack line that you've just described as though Albanese was somehow neglecting his domestic responsibilities. 

##Archival tape -- Dan Tehan:
“Well, it is concerning because what he seems to be doing is focussing completely on the international front and good Prime Ministers can do both…”

##CHRIS:
Albanese had a fantastic response. He simply said, ‘Well, which of the three trips do you suggest I shouldn't have made?’ And of course, y’know, it’s not as though he was like Scott Morrison on holiday secretly in Hawaii while Australia burned.

##Archival tape -- Journalist:
“Have the criticisms of Albanese been fair, there's been some criticism that he took too long to get in contact with you?”

##Archival tape -- Dominic Perrottet:
“I don't think so at all. He was in the Ukraine.” 

##CHRIS:
And when Dominic Perrottet in addition backed in behind Albanese and supported him over Dan Tehan’s attack, Tehan looked really pretty stupid.

##Archival tape -- Dominic Perrottet:
“There are challenges across our state, there are domestic challenges that are international challenges that the Prime Minister has to balance up. But from my perspective as Premier, the engagement has been incredibly positive, supportive and open to providing anything that they can do to assist us.”

##CHRIS:
So Albanese has a triumph in Paris. He's managed a really deep reset of the damaged Australia France relationship. On return, of course, he immediately goes and tours flood affected areas with New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet.
 
##Archival tape -- Anthony Albanese:
“I'm very pleased that the Commonwealth is cooperating so well with the New South Wales Government. It is a seamless relationship that we have, which is what people want to see at a time like this…”

##CHRIS:
Not a political ally, Perrottet’s a Liberal, obviously. Albanese is Labor, but you could not have seen a more cohesive and mutually sympathetic collaboration between two levels of government, between two leaders.

##Archival tape -- Dominic Perrottet:
“Well, thank you, Prime Minister. Can I begin by reiterating a few of those points? Firstly to thank the Commonwealth Government but also the New South Wales agencies across the board in relation to the coordination…”

##RUBY:
And Chris, when you look at the situation at the moment, if you look at what Anthony Albanese is flying home to, there's flooding. There's rate rises and cost of living pressures. And now there's this COVID wave that seems to be incoming over winter. It seems like everything is lining up for, I suppose, the first real tests for this government?

##CHRIS:
That's true. And Albanese himself has said he's got a lot of talented ministers who take initiative and get on with things themselves. And I think across all of the major portfolios the challenges are so big, even the ones that don't seem to be immediately in crisis have often been in chronic crisis for decades. I'm thinking of aged care here. So the Albanese Government has a phenomenally difficult, huge job ahead of it to rebuild systems, rebuild infrastructure, get policy on right settings. Again, it is massive. But of course, you know, that's why we elect them: to form government, and do these things. So now we're going to make sure they do indeed get on and do them.

##RUBY:
Chris, thank you so much for your time.

##CHRIS:
Pleasure. 

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##RUBY:
Also in the news today,
A fourth dose of a Covid-19 vaccine is now specifically recommended to anyone older than 50, and people aged between 30-49 are now also eligible to receive a fourth booster dose. 

On Thursday, federal health Minister Mark Butler said that 7.4 million more people will now be eligible for a fourth dose from next week after Australia's expert medical advisory body ATAGI announced its updated vaccination recommendations.

And, the Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has ordered the Commonwealth to drop the prosecution of lawyer Bernard Collaery, after he was charged in 2018 for leaking classified information about The Australian government’s alleged spying operation in East Timor.

In a press conference in Sydney, Dreyfus described the case as “exceptional” and that his decision was informed by the government’s commitment to its “relationship with our neighbours”.

*7am* is a daily show from *The Monthly* and *The Saturday Paper*. It’s produced by Elle Marsh, Kara Jensen-Mackinnon, Alex Gow and Alex Tighe. 

Our technical producer is Atticus Bastow.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Scott Mitchell. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. 

Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

Additional composition this week by Atticus Bastow. 

I’m Ruby Jones, this is *7am*. See you next week.

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