Co-opted under Covid: health experts set up for blame they may deserve

Jan 11, 2022
doctor mask covid 19 coronavirus
The PM and some premiers are saying, somewhat dismissively, that health advice is just one of the sets of opinions considered carefully when responding to fresh events. (Image: Unsplash)

As the pandemic enters its third year, politicians are demanding their advisers follow theories about the roles of government and the private sector.

I don’t expect that history will be very kind about overall Commonwealth management of the response to the Coronavirus crisis, but one thing I expect that those making judgments with the benefit of considerable hindsight will agree is that Scott Morrison, in particular, played the public service for mugs. And as with all the great cons, the marks jumped of their own accord. There are no scuffle marks at the top of the cliff.

It’s not something that ought to entitle Morrison to avoid moral responsibility and ultimate accountability. But in ways that fundamentally compromised supposedly independent bureaucratic judgment and advice, that made experts and professional medical advisers “own” decisions shaped for political convenience to government, and which left them, rather than the politicians, or the Treasury, as the fall guys for a host of strategic errors that cost time, money and human lives. There’s been much too much of telling the government what it wanted to hear.

Right at the moment, the Prime Minister and some premiers are no longer bothering much to pretend, as they did two years ago, that they are slavishly following the considered or consensus views of their experts about the best way to organise health campaigns to counter the advance of the virus, and the disease it caused, in the community.

At best, they are saying, somewhat dismissively, that health advice is just one of the sets of opinions considered carefully when deciding the appropriate response to fresh events. They also listen to advice from others in government, to purchased advice from pliant consultants chosen for saying what the recipients wanted to hear, and to broader views about the needs of the economy, economic recovery, or the government’s political convenience. Right now, the weight attached to health advice is falling sharply.

Increasingly, politicians have been demanding that advice be adapted to fit broader government theories about the role of government, the role of the private sector, the theories of some ideologues about personal freedoms, and doing the minimum, and now, about the need for citizens, rich or poor, to take personal responsibility rather than instruction for the state of their health.

One can see it at the moment with the pretence that advice about checking for Covid infection represents the best possible medical opinion. Or that real public health experts think that the individual should decide when she is at risk from exposure to others, and when she ought to be taking precautions not so much for her own safety but for the protection of others in the community, including their own households, their workplaces, shops and public facilities.

It can be seen in the promulgation of Morrison’s views about the duty of most Australians to buy their own rapid antigen tests, so as, apparently, not to interfere with the freedom of the market to make a quid. (Incidentally, the wholesale price of a RATs test is about $3.80.) It can be seen in efforts for political purposes to reduce the inconvenience to citizens of endless queuing for testing and a belated enthusiasm for RATs, even though governments, and bureaucrats, had done all too little to secure supplies of them. And in the lack of planning for vaccinating children before the school year starts.

It can be seen in a newfound dismissal of most “practical” anti-Covid measures as matters for the states.

That is, of course, a consequence of the refusal of the premiers and chief ministers to blindly follow the “leadership” of Morrison on anti-pandemic measures, and Morrison’s acceptance of his impotence.

But it has run entirely against his initial pretences that Australia’s excellent mortality and morbidity outcomes were a result of his leadership, Commonwealth expertise and the upending of short-term Budget considerations in an effort to keep the economy afloat.

But one should dismiss the idea that Morrison’s modern relatively passive approach is new, a result of political defeatism after lost battles with the premiers, or that it comes from a belief (particularly among economic types) that the war against the Coronavirus is virtually over, given that the virus has mutated and is now “mostly harmless” to most Australians.

All along, and certainly all last year, Morrison has seen lights at the end of the tunnel when they were approaching trains.

He has always resisted lockdowns and border closures, and other measures designed to reduce exposure, even after it became clear that they worked. Most of the population, if not the ranters of and the business lobbies, saw their point and their value.

There’s not a thing on offer at the moment that can be called precautionary against a further Coronavirus variant — perhaps one that is vaccine-resistant. Not that this is inevitable, but it is certainly a possibility, one Morrison does not want to have talked about before the election.

Treasury, and Morrison, have long feared that economic recovery could founder if a resumption of ordinary business activity were left too late. They persist with this even in the face of evidence, here in Australia as well as abroad, that dealing with the disease has been a necessary precondition for that economic recovery. Every time health controls have been slackened prematurely, the health situation has deteriorated, and required more drastic measures than would have been needed had government not jumped the gun.

That NSW was Morrison’s “gold-standard” state, allegedly the model for anti-pandemic measures falling significantly short of fair-dinkum lockdowns, led to a major fresh outbreak that seriously compromised measures in other states as well. Morrison and Gladys Berejiklian prolonged the worst stage of the pandemic. The consequence was the greater because of Commonwealth failures to secure an adequate suite of vaccines, sufficient supplies of what it did order, and incompetent management of the rollout, particularly to the groups who were most vulnerable to the virus.

In each case, politicians deserve the primary blame. They imposed their judgments and priorities — as well as desperation to make “announcements” — over ordinary processes of orderly administration and proper and informed decision-making, to the detriment of outcomes.

Officials ought to have been giving more cautious and more detached advice. But such duties seem to have ended up taking second place to shaping advice to make a virtue of “fitting” their view with the government’s idea of the world, a timid obedience and eagerness to be of service, and, perhaps, a pleasure at standing and nodding sagely alongside politicians. For this senior officials became rock stars, a process not discouraged by a government always on the alert for future scapegoats.

As it happens, the public usually had an insight into the nature of the advice being received, and the curious way by which advice in any jurisdiction, from the Commonwealth down, tended to mirror the views of the relevant premier, chief minister or health minister. This was never because the political dog was wagging the tail, but because of the pragmatism of officials tailoring their advice according to what ministers wanted to hear.

Does anyone really believe that the Victorian premier was tamely doing what the doctor ordered on school closures, or that Morrison’s resistance to it came from purely objective advice from Commonwealth advisers? Australians generally knew the range of expert views because there were any number of academic experts keen for public exposure, and people outside the system — if with intimate knowledge of how that system worked — blowing the whistle. One good example might be the comments by former Health Secretary Steven Duckett in Pearls and Irritations.

Part 2 of this article will appear tomorrow

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