The word “slam” is used from time to time by the media reporting politics. Thus back on 7 September we had Scott Morrison in Coronavirus Australia: Gloves off as Scott Morrison slams Premier Daniel Andrews on road map.
However, if you read the article Morrison is not telling Andrews what to do. So as recently as last Thursday Morrison could credibly stand in Cairns next to Qld LNP leader Deb Frecklington saying that he accepts that state leaders make the decisions on COVID management. It’s just that he’s inclined to refer to ‘Federal standards’ that have not actually been agreed to by the constituent states of the federation.
All the while Victorian federal ministers have indeed slammed Andrews on quite a regular basis for some months.
Andrews has had enough, so we had Premier Daniel Andrews lashes Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt for ‘insulting’ Victorians in tweet and ‘JUST WRONG’: Daniel Andrews slams Federal Health Minister over ‘insulting’ comments.
Andrews in his subsequent media conference explained to the press that he and the people around him, including his Chief Health Officer and Deputy CHO, have more concrete information about what is happening on the ground than any Federal minister, or indeed any academic epidemiologist. They discuss at length and in detail why they take the specific measures they do.
That is why it is galling and just wrong for Health Minister Greg Hunt to say:
- “The epidemiological conditions for a COVID-safe reopening of hospitality, movement and family reunions, among others, have now firmly been met,” he said.
“Victoria should now be able to move to the next step, in line with NSW.”
The journalists on Insiders (Nine Newspapers’ chief political correspondent David Crowe, the AFR’s’s Jennifer Hewett and the ubiquitous Peter van Onselen) would have done well to listen to Andrews media conferences before lecturing that he has to be more accountable.
One matter that has concerned me is that Deputy Chief Medical Officer Prof Paul Kelly has often been quoted as saying there is no medical reason to shut state borders.
I can’t find a direct quote where he says that. Certainly he has given his opinion, but in this article the direct quote is:
- “From a medical point of view I can’t see why the borders are still closed,” he said.
- Professor Kelly said he was sure Mr McGowan was getting “the best advice” from WA’s Chief Health Officer Dr Andrew Robertson, who has advised not to reopen the borders.
When questioned on the discrepancy between the national and state advice, Professor Kelly said the national body of health experts decided early on “not to have a decision on borders”.
“As have been the case with much of the national advice, specific issues related to states are to be done at that state level,” he said.
“Western Australia can close their border, and they have.”(Emphasis added)
On the evidence, Kelly is not disrespecting the positions taken by his state colleagues, simply giving his own opinion.
On Sunday Morrison, Hunt and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg issued a Joint media statement – Victorian restrictions. After some conciliatary words and reminding us how many billions they had contributed ($31 billion economic lifeline extended to the state through JobKeeper, JobSeeker’s COVID supplement and pandemic disaster leave) they slipped into Victoria, including:
- Throughout the lockdown more than 1000 jobs have been lost, on average, every day. There has also been a 31 per cent increase in mental health services being accessed under Medicare for the same four-week period up to 11 October in Victoria compared with last year, whilst it has been only an eight per cent increase in NSW and seven per cent nationally.
The continued health, mental health and financial impacts of these restrictions will be profound on many Victorians. That is why we encourage Victoria to move safely and quickly towards the NSW model of strong contact tracing and a COVIDSafe but predominately open economy.
So then it was on again in the media, as from The New Daily with Morrison slams ‘heavy cost’ of Victoria lockdowns, calls on Andrews to open faster, plus ‘Disappointing’: Business leaders condemn Melbourne’s ongoing retail ban:
Business leaders have slammed a decision to keep Melbourne retailers shut for up to a further two weeks, arguing it will prolong the pain for businesses that were already hanging by a thread.
Then Josh Frydenberg really let fly in Josh Frydenberg slams Victoria’s ‘callous indifference’ towards small business owners:
Josh Frydenberg is furious the Victorian premier has not gone further in reopening the state, given the low number of new infections.
He accused Mr Andrews of making it up as he goes and demonstrating a callous indifference towards small business owners.
“The bloody-mindedness is unforgivable,” Mr Frydenberg said on Monday.
“There’s been a callous indifference in Victoria from the government to the loss of jobs and to the plight of small business.”
Mr Frydenberg warned 1000 jobs would be lost each and every day the state remained in lockdown.
Business groups have also criticised the “inexplicable and unacceptable” timeline for lifting restrictions in Victoria, we are told.
Business groups meaning mainly retail and hospitality.
Greg Hunt had Tweeted:
- Another good day for Victoria. The three day rolling average for Vic is now below 2 cases. This is well below the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer’s definition of a Covid hot spot (ie below 10 cases) & lays the foundation for a move to Covid Safe practices in line with NSW.
I need to re-assert here from my post about hotspots and borders that the CMO gave that average as a definition of a surging hotspot that might warrant federal support with masks, PPE and such, and was never considered by National Cabinet in relation to borders.
Nowhere in the world have I heard a 3-day rolling average used as relevant to opening up after suppressing the virus.
Andrews response to criticism was blunt. See Daniel Andrews lashes Josh Frydenberg over attack on Victoria’s Covid strategy:
- “It’s all about the politics with this bloke, isn’t it?
“That’s all he does. He is not a leader, he is just a Liberal. All he does is play politics, every day, and I just don’t think that is fair, and I think Victorians are sick of it. Victorians want their family protected, they wanted their health issues dealt with so we can open up. All he does is play politics in the midst of a global pandemic.”
AFR political columnist Jennifer Hewett in her Monday column says:
- Daniel Andrews is a strong political performer despite his government’s many failings in dealing with the coronavirus. So to distract critical attention, he is accusing Josh Frydenberg of playing political games. (Emphasis added)
- Frydenberg, along with the business community, has been increasingly frustrated by the snail-like pace and lack of logic in Victoria’s delayed emergence from lockdown given the impact on jobs and the ability of businesses to survive.
Frydenberg, when he makes these attacks, looks like his head is about to explode. This ABC short video of Andrews, which is headlined “Premier responds angrily…”, actually shows him calm, over it, and resigned in the face of reporters who will have different view.
Hewitt was in sych with the AFR editorial line on Monday Dragging the chain on reopening is all about politics
- Daniel Andrews is still on an inexplicably and unwarrantedly slow and complex road out of the restrictions for Victorian business despite the minimal and manageable health risks.
Somehow Andrews is seen to be locking up Victorians for his political advantage. Then there is this:
- The small mercy for some struggling businesses in Victoria might be that after months of uncertainty, there is now a firmer timetable and hopes of a faster pace. But to show gratitude would be to give in to Stockholm syndrome. Mr Andrews is still insisting on an inexplicably and unwarrantedly slow and complex road out of the restrictions for business, despite the minimal and manageable health risks.
All Victoria needs to do is what NSW is doing.
The ‘unwarranted’ tag is drawn from superficially listening to the utterings of academic epidemiologists, who have been much in demand. So here is what I heard and found such academic epidemiologists saying in the course of about 24 hours.
First there was Professor James McCaw, mathematical biologist and infectious diseases epidemiologist at the University of Melbourne, on ABC RN’s AM program in Expert warns Australia still in early stage of pandemic.
He is largely supportive of what Andrews is doing. He thinks opening up could perhaps go a little faster, but things are heading in the right direction. He is more confident now of the system’s ability to cope with outbreaks which are still likely, and with the public’s response. He emphasised that we are in the early stages of this pandemic, and a fair way from a vaccine.
Of particular interest, he said how pleased he was Andrews understood that the raw numbers were not the whole story. At this stage, when numbers were low, qualitative decisions need to be made.
He thought absolutely that gatherings in homes to watch the AFL grand final should not happen.
Then within minutes we had Norman Swan in Case numbers plummet but business restrictions remain in Melbourne interviewed by Geraldine Doogue on RN Breakfast.
Swan’s overview was stunning. He said that Victoria had smashed the COVID curve like no other country in the world. No country that had suffered the level of infection seen in Victoria of 700 per day, and on the path to double the infection rate in less than a week, had suppressed the virus to the low levels now seen. Not Singapore, not South Korea. If we look at the second wave in Israel with a population not much larger than Victoria, we could have seen hundreds of thousands of cases and several thousand deaths but for the Victorian intervention.
(Arguably, China did better than Victoria, but China, as we know, is exceptional.)
As to Victoria’s daily infections now being lower than NSW’s, Swan said that was irrelevant. He said what mattered was that Victoria still had more mystery cases (I think it was 16 in Victoria vs low single digits in NSW) indicating more community circulation. That was what mattered, plus the trajectory of those numbers, remembering the official infections reflected what happened some days ago. NSW, he said, was not steel-belted against a major outbreak. Christmas, he said was set up for superspreading. The family barbecue was made for the virus.
Swan felt that Victoria was now probably just as good as NSW in quickly testing, tracing etc.
Mention was made of an AFR article by Nathan Grills Curfew fails human rights test by Nathan Grills, who is an AFR columnist and is an associate professor and public health physician at the Nossal Institute for Global Health at the University of Melbourne. He also works a shift in a hospital emergency department which finishes at 10pm, and now is peeved because he can’t do his supermarket shopping on the way home, when:
- The supermarkets are quiet and I encounter few people. Likewise, the elderly who are vulnerable to COVID-19 might choose to shop at 10pm to avoid encountering many people. Instead, the curfew forces us all to shop at times when we encounter more people – and more risk.
Grills has taken a human rights case to the Supreme Court, because he claims the Melbourne curfew decision infringes the proportionality principle, established in international law, where restrictions should be applied proportionally by using the least restrictive measure required. Moreover:
- To build community trust and acceptance during such limitation of human rights, the community should know how the decision was made, by whom, on what evidence and for what end.
Seems it was an idea of Andrews, not the police or the CHO, and not in the expectation that it would make much difference.
Swan thought the curfew was for the greater good. I’m not a lawyer, but it looks to me that Grills has the better case. Apparently the case has been brought forward, so that it will be heard early in November, around Melbourne Cup time.
McCaw and Swan convinced me that Andrews and his team are pretty much on the right track, and that the political bother boys from the Feds have a different agenda. I’ll come back to that, but below I’ve listed other relevant information and opinion, with a few points highlighted.
- Professors Raina McIntyre and Catherine Bennett participated in an extended Q&A session with Hilary Harper at ABC RN’s Life Matters – Managing the transition to a new normal with COVID-19
McIntyre said the Victorian health system had been badly hollowed out from the 1990s. That would point to the work of one Jeffrey Gibb Kennett who was premier from 1992 to 1999. McIntyre was happy with the decentralised testing and tracing installed in recent months.
Bennett said that she was happy with a phased and gradual opening up in principle.
- Professor Catherine Bennett, Chair of Epidemiology at Deakin University, wrote in Inside Story – Lessons from the lockdown (Monday 19 October)
- Bennett again at The Conversation – Melbourne is almost out of lockdown. It’s time to trust Melburnians to make their own COVID-safe decisions (Sunday 18 October)
Bennett has contributed some interesting insights, for example:
- We also gained a better understanding of transmission, with the sum of global evidence to date confirming that it mostly occurs via the respiratory route from droplets or, less frequently, aerosols. The evidence was also confirming that transmission usually occurs in clusters, most often when people are in close proximity indoors, with poor ventilation, for extended periods.
She points out that 70% of people who get the virus do not pass it on. It is mostly passed by superspreaders in situations favourable to spreading.
Mandatory masks were critical in the success of the Melbourne suppression. However, she believes that people should wear masks only in situations where it makes a real difference, as opposed to everywhere. They should think for themselves about virus transmission and how they can stay safe.
There were too many rules, which make people lose agency and the government lose engagement. In the long run it is better for people to internalise appropriate behaviours rather than just worry about rules and whether they will be caught.
Only in October was the ‘contact of contacts’ approach adopted, which she had been recommending for months. This throws the net wider with every infection identified.
My comment would be that in government sometimes you can’t do what is deemed optimal. The human and other resources need to be cranked up, which takes time.
- Linda Mottram presents Australia’s last lockdown? which is the first 11:10 minutes of the ABC RN PM segment.
The first 5:45 min roundup includes a short interview with Professor Sharon Lewin, Director of The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity. She favours a ‘hasten slowly’ approach, would have liked a little more speed, but we are only talking about a week or so, and a slow exit is what we need.
That was followed by an interview with Catherine Bennett, who said some of the things she said elsewhere, but stressed that Victoria had learned a lot, and she is now confident that they can handle whatever comes as well as NSW can. She thinks this may be the last of the lockdowns we need in Australia.
At that time the new cases were stubbornly refusing to go below 10 per day and were even rising a bit. So he said that the stated aims for opening on 19 October were mathematically impossible. I can’t do justice to the article in a summary, but he argues the case for opening on 19 October, then argues the case for staying closed. They seem equally valid, so he says “Bugger” and offers some thoughts for more gentle easing.
His prediction for what would happen if Victoria opened as specified in the roadmap was this:
- I hate to be the bringer of bad news, but if we do open up more on the 19 October it is very likely that at some point in the future – hopefully after Christmas – we will have to tighten up again.
I hope I am wrong, but I fear yo-yoing between Step 2 and Step 3 is our most likely – even most optimistic – trajectory till we get a vaccine.
From what Catherine Bennett said I think the tracing of contacts of contacts began about when Tony Buckley was tapping out his piece.
All this adds up to zero support for what Frydenberg and company are baying for. That is not denying the cost in social, economic and mental health terms. With a bit of luck, suppression may turn into virtual elimination, effectively already achieved in states and territories other than NSW and Victoria, while realising opening to the rest of the world will bring further outbreaks. Our big problem will be complacency, especially in states that have been virus-free for a time.
Meanwhile the real problem facing Frydenberg and Morrison was that the support provided by JobKeeper and JobSeeker enhancements, plus the Budget, did not provide the confidence business needs to invest, and did not take into account what would be needed to turn the situation in Victoria around. Melbourne is a major hub city in our society and economy. We need it in good shape.
Frydenberg and Morrison are worried that their budget strategy may come up short. They are trying to bully Victoria and pre-emptively shift blame.
On Wednesday the leaders of seven major businesses – Wesfarmers, Commonwealth Bank, BHP, Orica, Incitec Pivot, Newcrest and Coca-Cola Amatil – wrote to Andrews pleading for him to allow businesses to reopen. In response Trucking boss Lindsay Fox urges support for Premier’s ‘tough decisions’:
Trucking magnate Lindsay Fox urged the business community to find solutions and work together to fight the deadly virus that has wreaked devastation across Victoria.
“We have a common enemy, and they don’t seem to realise this,” he said.
“They are spending so much time throwing stones rather than trying to find a way to fix the problem.”