Politics

Australians are at risk as too many of our leaders abdicate responsibility for Covid to pander to their political base | Malcolm Farr

The epidemic of indecision and timidity pouring out of the offices of premiers and the prime minister has turned Christmas into a game of chance for thousands of Australian families.

The comforting seasonal traditions of visiting relatives or having them over for gifts and good food are being disrupted by the will-they-or-won’t-they factor.

Will the Queensland/New South Wales border stay open? Why won’t governments reintroduce compulsory precautions against the further spread of Covid-19?

The loss of seasonal certainty is deeply felt in most communities.

But an even broader concern is the absence of firm management of this health crisis by some governments at the state and federal levels.

There has been an abdication of responsibility by those governments as they anxiously tend to their political base rather than the wider good. And this has been accompanied – in what history surely will record as a moment of brilliant public administration comedy – by demands that individual Australians take personal responsibility for virus outbreaks.

The expanding notion that no government is good government is a debate topic, not a response to a crisis. And it is easily converted into camouflage for incompetence.

Government leaders in various jurisdictions are offering what they see as gallant resistance to unpopular measures to contain viral spread. Their gallantry has bred chaos as Omicron sweeps through communities.

It’s not a surrender to Covid but to the politics of the pandemic, a kowtowing to the incoherent mob claiming their freedoms are being co-opted by health experts.

There are also the more justifiable concerns of business, particularly small business, which has been pushed to the limits of survival in some instances by the fight against the disease. Of secondary consideration for some of these folk is the fact their customers can’t buy goods and services while in an ICU ward.

The examples of government defying global precedent on fighting Covid are stark.

In NSW, premier Dominic Perrottet has spent much of the past two months telling his voters what he will not do — a strange positioning for a government ostensibly dedicated to getting things done. On Thursday however he reintroduced mandatory QR code check-ins in hospitality and retail ­venues and later the same day he announced that masks will be mandated in indoor settings.

On Thursday NSW reported more than 5,700 Covid cases, and the queues to be tested are being matched in scale by the number of hospitalisations. The number of hospitalised Covid patients rose from 302 to 347 in 24 hours.

Covid update: Morrison refuses to mandate masks as chief health officer says 'wear a mask’ – video
Covid update: Morrison refuses to mandate masks as chief health officer says ‘wear a mask’ – video

It is not that Australia has had a unique history with the virus, much as we might strut boastfully as we highlight our vaccination rates. Denmark had a splendid vaccination rate as well but is now back to closing public gathering places, from zoos to cinemas, in desperate attempts to forestall an Omicron takeover.

Tolerating Covid has not worked elsewhere. Doing little or nothing is a deadly strategy.

It’s a throwback to March 2020 when prime minister Scott Morrison declared – on Friday 13 – he was going to an NRL game the next day immediately after the announcement of advice to restrict large gatherings commencing the next Monday.

One gets a measure of Morrison’s grasp of the emergency and his political priority from his later justification for the proposed outing, which he then cancelled: “The game wasn’t that great to watch but you have got to be loyal to your team. Always.”

The emerging Australian commitment to inaction was road-tested by Britain’s Boris Johnson and arguably was a disaster.

Tougher restrictions are now in place in Britain as Johnson pays a political price for past laxity and hypocrisy. Downing Street is being portrayed in leaks as being party central while Britons elsewhere were ordered to isolate.

The widespread condemnation of lockdowns has also had its fans in other countries – until this latest wave of infections. Lockdowns are now in place in the Netherlands and are being considered essential elsewhere.

Apparently the need for booster shots came as a surprise to those in Australia in charge of distributing them, despite the rest of the world having talked through the issue for several weeks.

Israel is now considering a second booster shot – a fourth vaccination, while many Australians have been frustrated by supply and distribution issues in getting their third.

An attempt to placate the frustration came with assurances that there were plenty of doses in stock and about to be delivered. One epidemiologist replied the vaccines had to be in arms, not trucks.

The Covid pandemic is a major health emergency which is eroding faith in elected representatives, but less so in those states who have stood firm on unpopular measures.

The flinching by government has added to chaos and, more importantly, to the likelihood thousands more Australians will be incapacitated, or even killed, by the virus.

Malcolm Farr is a political journalist

This article was updated on 23 December following the announcement of the NSW indoor mask mandate

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