Flat White

Tough love: NSW Lockdown 2.0 is very wrong

29 June 2021

1:01 PM

29 June 2021

1:01 PM

A regular series of rules for life by Pete Shmigel, a former senior state and federal political advisor and CEO of Lifeline Australia.

This “Tough Love” is in part directed at friends of 30 years standing, former work colleagues, and political buddies in the Liberal and Nationals Coalition Government of New South Wales.  

In one sentence: NSW Lockdown 2.0 is very wrong. 

Indeed, Lockdown 2.0 is like a bad software update. Something few but the geeks recommend; something that can do more harm than good to an operating system when downloaded; something that can cause you to get so frustrated that you go to JB HiFi to look for a new laptop.  

And, developments of the last 24 hours at the national level – a SNAFU is the military description – don’t make it less wrong. In fact, given NSW has been rightly lauded for its pandemic approach to date, the lockdown sees it potentially falling back to a mediocre pack. 

Premier, Deputy Premier, Brad, Dom, Victor, Stuart, Natalie, David, Don, Damien, Rob, Anthony, Matt, Mel, Geoff and crew, I don’t wish for the electoral version of the last aspect. In fact, as the Leader of the Opposition has noted, the government deserves credit for the approach taken to date and its efficacy in stifling the health impacts of a sneaky and insidious disease. My mother died from COVID19 in the US, and I am not inclined to dismiss it as ‘just like any other virus’. You are right to take it as seriously as you have, and to resource and innovate in your response to it. 

At the same time, your government’s COVID competency has strongly contributed to its political equity. You’re seen as a government that has very capably tackled this problem. That’s why the decision to put Greater Sydney etc into two weeks of lockdown is not only wrong, but surprising.   

Remember an old lesson from an old pollster of yours: the voting public factors for incompetence from incompetent governments, but it punishes good governments, that it really trusts, for poor performance. It’s a bigger breach. 

So, what’s wrong here?  

First, the evidence for a lockdown of this scale seems paltry and patchy. We’re told, and asked to accept without the government disclosing any pertinent substantiating data, the claim that the Delta variant is much more virulent. The situation is apparently different and requires different levels of restrictions. Is it really? 

In fact, there is one untraced case. Almost all other current cases are linked to known clusters. The overall rate of infection is not significantly different than in the past. The clusters themselves are largely geographically contained and, indeed, substantially limited to a couple of extended family groups. The graphs on the nightly news are almost laughable – the x-axis for the number of unexplained cases doesn’t get to 10. 

Moreover, when it comes to the disease’s actual impact as opposed to its transmission, Google gives up some very simple stats: there’s currently one (1) person in ICU and five (5) in hospital for COVID19. Let that sink in. 

Veteran Coalition staffer and public policy analyst, David Miles, who has a background in the health sector, made the following point on the weekend.

‘From the beginning, we were told the aim to avoid lockdowns was to have the transmission rate at 1:1 or below, eg, someone with COVID passes it on to no more than one other person per day. We have been consistently below that ratio. Now, with the new Sydney cases, we are still below .4,’ Miles posted.  

(He further cited references that, significantly, show Australia is currently 153rd in the world on the list of active cases and our infection rate is a remarkably low 0.12%.) 

It should be noted – and this was reinforced by the Canberra cock-up last night – that transmission numbers are a strangely self-imposed policy ambush. Zero transmission is impossible to attain. If rises in transmission are your main measure, any rise or potential rise looks like awful pandemic performance (when it’s actually not). The only failure is that you’re measuring activity or potential activity rather than outputs.  

My friends, the tactical problem with ambushes is, that the only way for anyone in your unit to have a chance of survival, you have to attack them head-on and take very high casualties. They are best avoided through knowing the lay of the land ahead of you.  

But let’s presume the transmission trap seems to be what we’re operating within. If that’s the case, the lockdown decision is outside transmission-based and previously stated policy parameters. We’re well under the ratio and there’s no sign of that radically changing!  

In a major essay for the New York Times yesterday, two eminent virology professors from Columbia University flatly stated regarding Delta: ‘Just because a variant displaces another does not necessarily mean it is more infectious or more deadly to the people who become infected with it.’ 

Then what explains the government’s shift into lockdown mode? How do we find ourselves in an unprecedentedly stringent response that severely curtails our daily lives? That takes us to the second main way the lockdown is wrong. 

The decision-making process around this lockdown seems incomplete or flawed. The Australian reported an emergency meeting of a crisis Cabinet committee where it appears that all advice received was from NSW Health, and that there had presumably been no testing of that advice in advance. I know that doesn’t sound scary to many average punters, but an old hack’s risk radar goes off tilt to read of such an abridged process. 

The boring civics lecture that bears repetition: the whole point of Cabinet-based government is diversity of inputs to get a balanced output. In the name of the overall public interest, it’s meant to be a constant but careful renegotiation of the social contract. 

As a matter of design principles, it’s risky when any one player, interest, or Department or so on decisively dominates the process, as is arguably the case now with NSW Health. Whether it’s NSW Health, the local nunnery or the pub down the road, institutional inertia sets in. Even unwittingly, organisations look after their own self-interest just as they earnestly look after their mission. The best senior leaders, be they political or in business, correct for this tendency; they make sure there are checks and balances; that assumptions are tested.  

In this case, is anybody asking the question: what is NSW Health’s self-interest? Is this a question of unnecessarily basing everything on worst-case scenarios? Is there internal pressure around fatigue and resources in the system?   

The truth is that anybody can act on or amplify experts’ specialist and singular advice; leaders have a broader responsibility to back themselves and act in the name of broader community needs.  

As Barry O’Farrell once said: ‘I am not an expert in this specific policy area, but I am expert at applying logic in the public interest.’ 

The benefits of the lockdown compared to its costs do not appear to logically flow, or, some suggest are fictional. As UNSW economics Professor Gigi Foster, who conducted a draft cost/benefit on lockdowns for the Victorian Parliament, strongly argued in today’s Herald: “There is no connection in a COVID world between shelter-in-place orders and lives saved.” She bases her conclusion that ‘lockdowns are basically pure cost’ on a 43 country study that found no evidence – zip – of lockdowns reducing excess deaths. 

It is also troubling that senior government ministers appear not to understand those costs, or the very human toll that lockdowns exact. The Police Minister is posting ‘Dear Diary’ lockdown comedy monologues on social media from the comfort of his home and paid public sector job. Two other Ministers regale the Sunday papers with their bromance beard-growing contest. Gents, when others are doing it tough as a result of your decision, and a decision without strong evidence, there’s a word for the behaviour: hubris.  

Those of us around in 2011 when the Coalition first won, know this. It wasn’t corruption itself that killed Labor. It was its arrogant denial of punters’ reality.  

But, despite the frat boy transgressions of some elected representatives, we will adhere to the lockdown provisions because we’re a mature and polite community. In some way, that almost makes it harder to suck up the undeniable impacts: kids not being allowed to be kids, families without school holidays, loved ones and sick people isolated from each other… This stuff sucks and it hurts and there are no sequels available. Sure, the Treasurer can buy our way out of the economic implications, but the emotional toll is longer-term, incalculable and unaddressed.  

When we talk of a ‘new normal’, we are actually changing the norms of our society and, you would think, that should not be done in a way that’s hasty, misinformed or disorganised. We absolutely should not do it a way that’s political expedient; I hope I know my friends in Government well enough to still believe that that is not part of the current considerations. 

Nevertheless, from a position of ‘tough love’, one wonders who is making the relevant arguments in Cabinet. Who is standing up for real evidence, for due process, for the punters who pay the price, and for keeping our social fabric the way it’s long been? For all our sake, I hope someone starts too. Whether that’s NSW or otherwise. 


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