This time last year was a time of hope – we had survived 2020, vaccinations were just around the corner and with that, the promise of no more lockdowns and a return to open borders. We would live safely with Covid.
How wrong we were.
The mess we are in is the result of three factors.
The first factor was an external one. As expected, the virus mutated and we learned the Greek alphabet. Delta was worse than the original strain, and then along came Omicron, with its impact exacerbated by the two other factors.
The second factor was world-class bungling. The commonwealth government completely mishandled every aspect of the vaccination program. Its narrow procurement strategy was wrong. Its prioritisation strategy – with the most at-risk to be vaccinated first – was ignored from the start. Its rollout was a shemozzle, so bad that “strollout” was designated Australian word of the year. Its communication of vaccine advice and eligibility was confusing and inconsistent. The commonwealth learned nothing from this litany of errors and proceeded to bungle the testing approach as well.
The third factor was also one of our own making: the complete collapse of national leadership. The federal government went missing in action. Each state went its own way, imposing border controls at short notice and inventing its own idiosyncratic definitions about when a zone was red or green. Most unfortunately, each state decided whether or not to attempt to control the spread seriously. There were clear differences among states and over time. New South Wales followed a less interventionist approach than Victoria, and the NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet, is more laissez-faire than his predecessor.
So how do we move forward? The virus is the virus. It is endemic now and governments should treat it seriously. Ostrich-like denialist rhetoric about “personal responsibility” and “we’re all going to get it” is not a sound basis for a public health strategy. Once we are all fully (third dose) vaccinated, we may not all get infected, even if we are all exposed. Giving up now risks overwhelming the health system and undermines community support for necessary public health measures.
The two problems of our own making need to be addressed, and this requires national leadership.
The commonwealth needs to abandon its hectoring from the sidelines with its eye on what would make a politically positive headline and what might appeal to its base. The states need to start recognising they are part of a single nation – and that, for example, Queensland’s border rules impact on NSW, and uncontrolled spread in one state affects all of us.
National cabinet needs to become a place where, just this once, ideology, political games and cost shifting are put second and the national interest is put first. A new era of national leadership would revisit current policy settings about testing, vaccination, and public health measures.
Testing has been overwhelmed. The states need to agree to use rapid antigen tests more. The commonwealth needs to fund antigen tests fully and distribute them for free as the UK has done for the last eight months.
The federal government needs to speed up the rollout of third doses and kids’ doses.
And we need to stop pretending that the only way we can “live with Covid” is to adopt a “let it rip” strategy with potentially fatal consequences for those most at risk. National leadership about the importance of public health measures, including mask mandates and testing yourself before mixing with others, is essential.
State action in 2020 meant that the first wave of Covid was essentially managed well – albeit with a few failures, most notably hotel quarantine in Victoria. Australia therefore has one of the lowest death rates in the world, and the economy has rebounded well too.
A cooperative national strategy is needed – and needed quickly – to respond to the immediate risks we are all facing. It is time for our national leaders to do their job, putting the national interest first.