Australia’s current WuFlu situation is not dire in world terms, yet from the reactions of federal, state and territory governments, you’d be forgiven for thinking the sky has fallen in.
Now is the time for the Prime Minister to show a firm hand; to prove he is a truly national leader, rather than a glorified middle manager.
Lockdowns and border closures are the order of the day – yet again. Businesses are being driven to the wall. Lives are being upended. Fear again stalks the land. For what?
A relative handful of active WuFlu cases, with new cases still in the low double figures. As for hospitalisations nationally, there are less than 60, and only two – count ‘em, two – are in intensive care.
And nobody in Australia has died with community-transmitted WuFlu in 2021.
Don’t get me wrong. This latest Indian variant of WuFlu is highly infectious and the experts advise it is more virulent than the original but for most it’s a relatively mild indisposition, quickly recovered from.
Yet the Feds and states are running off half-cocked with little consistency and coordination, despite the genuine constitutional innovation of Scott Morrison’s national cabinet.
This ‘every state for itself’ mentality must stop. The Prime Minister must knock the premiers and chief ministers’ heads together and get order out of the chaos, addressing some key concerns.
First, kill off the public health establishment’s obsession with eliminating WuFlu and striving for zero community transmissions. We are not going to eliminate this thing; we are going to have to live with it, possibly for years. Federal and state WuFlu strategies must incorporate this shared, realistic assumption and mitigate WuFlu’s effects on Australia’s economy and society.
Second, establish and implement consistent national benchmarks for drastic interventions, particularly lockdowns. New state or local government area cases in the single digits are not enough to justify such action. Model optimum numbers, but make them realistic in terms of balancing public health and economic priorities.
Third, standardise the rules of any major intervention. Lockdown rules, activity restrictions and mask mandates should be the same across all jurisdictions, but they aren’t.
Fourth, get consistency on border restrictions and closures, basing these not just on public health considerations, but on the obligation of Australian governments to keep trade and social intercourse as open as possible. Other than for NSW, and the federal government in occasional flashes of lucidity, that obligation has been ignored by state and territory ministers and bureaucrats snug on the public payroll, cheered on by ABC and other media commentators happy to sacrifice others’ livelihoods while their own are guaranteed.
Fifth, all governments should sing from the same hymn-sheet (not that anyone’s allowed to sing just now) on vaccine rollouts and specific vaccines. Confusion reigns: sort it out.
Sixth, tell the public the full truth in those daily media updates. Not just raw numbers of cases, but the severity of them. Exaggerating the dangers risks destroying public compliance and goodwill, not increasing them. Detail buried in incomprehensible government websites is no substitute for straight talk from the horse’s mouth.
And finally, read the riot act to premiers about their indulging their inner authoritarians, and curb their even more dangerous tendencies to act precipitately and disproportionately to even the tiniest change in numbers. Point out to them how Britain, Canada, and the US – and especially Singapore – are prepared to live with WuFlu instead of obsessing about eliminating it. Get their thick heads – and yours – around the truth that Australia, and Australians, can’t hide away from the world, capitulating to the merest threat of WuFlu as if we are the Italian army in World War II.
Scott Morrison sees himself as a major world leader. To be one, however, he needs to show more leadership at home. Here’s your to-do list: now crack those state heads, and get yours out of the sand, Prime Minister.
Terry Barnes is a former adviser to Tony Abbott during his time as health minister. He edits our daily newsletter, the Morning Double Shot. You can sign up for your Morning Double Shot of news and comment here.
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