What kind of fool am I? The government has made mistake after mistake on COVID. It was silly of me to assume it wouldn’t botch Omicron too.
Although highly infectious, Omicron is a relatively mild variant of Covid and it should have been a piece of Christmas cake to keep Australians relatively safe and our hospital systems in supportable shape over the festive period. Instead we got another slice of extraordinary Coalition ineptness.
I feel somewhat foolish about what I wrote in December for P&I. My article began:
“Australia is well on track for a remarkable vaccination uptake. Assuming we survive the new Omicron variant, by the end of 2021 most of the population will have returned to a reasonably normal, post-Covid lifestyle. Compared to other countries, we should have few long-lasting economic effects, while having avoided widespread Covid-related deaths and illness. However, all this will happen despite appalling incompetence and politicisation displayed by the federal government.”
I was a fool to assume our government would or, more importantly, could navigate Omicron. So here we are, in 2022, and our country – except for Western Australia – is numbed by the Omicron explosion. At the time of writing those words in early December, I could not conceive how our federal government could stuff up its handling of the new variant. I should have known, based on the government’s litany of past mistakes, that our entry into the new year would bring another blundering fiasco. Will this one be the worst of all?
A neighbour commented recently: “No matter what the decision, Scott Morrison always makes the wrong one!” The list of his mistakes has been well summarised by other writers, such as this one on P&I about our PM as a slow learner. Michael West has a lively video summary of how everything Morrison touches turns to an “unpleasant substance”:
Here is my list of some of the poor decisions and blunders by our PM regarding Covid:
Self-indulgence and self-entitlement: Off to the footy; flying at taxpayers’ expense to Sydney for Father’s Day when other Australians were under lockdown; free rapid antigen tests through his department while the not-so-fortunate have to pay.
Poor judgment and planning: All our eggs in the one AstraZeneca basket; ordering mRNA vaccines too late and only to find they dribbled in in small batches; failure to quell the fears about AstraZeneca. Eventually he did the right thing by handling the shambolic vaccine rollout to a senior military officer.
Dereliction of responsibilities: Ruby Princess; abdication of Commonwealth responsibilities for quarantine; dithering over building special-purpose facilities; the states and territories having to shoulder much of the burden of the pandemic; rampant infection and deaths in aged care homes under Commonwealth responsibility; and failing to get First Nations people vaccinated early.
Politicisation and favouritism: Shameless support for NSW’s bungled and selfish handling of the virus; targeting of Labor states with distressing and divisive invective, with senior ministers chiming in; pillorying Victorians while they struggled under lockdown; pillorying WA, the only state still standing; and shifting blame onto the states.
Mixed and changing messaging: About opening schools, quarantining, masks, lockdowns, tennis exemptions and vaccination mandate protesters.
Wrecking policies: Shaking our federation as states and territories were forced to look out for themselves; worldwide embarrassment from extensive lockdowns and hideous rioting; the 2020 Sydney-Hobart Yacht Race having to be cancelled; and now the grand slam status of the Australian Open under question.
Wasteful economic management: Government support such as JobKeeper allowed to be rorted; over-use of private companies for policy advice and healthcare services; wasteful blowout of government debt; support for big business and private schools but with paltry effective support for small business, entertainment and low-paid essential workers.
Preaching from the pulpit: Morrison seems more suited to addressing a religious rally. However, constant lecturing, mansplaining, rambling verbosity and backflips do not miracles make!
So what happened with Omicron? You did not have to be a scientist, epidemiologist or health professional to predict the mess that would unfold by not adjusting policies for a variant that is many times more infectious than Delta, albeit less severe. Thus, NSW seemed hell bent on relaxing restrictions for everyone, including the unvaccinated, pushing the change onto other jurisdictions.
Even before Christmas Day infections were skyrocketing around the country. The definition of a close contact, instead of being reduced from the former time limit of 15 minutes, was inexplicably increased to four hours. The result is that most of us probably now have friends or family who have been infected, if not ourselves too.
Even with the Omicron experience of other countries, again we are seeing a failure of contingency planning, with vaccine shortages on the cards for boosters and for children. However, it should be possible to predict booster demand with a high degree of accuracy, not just on a monthly basis, but daily. Vaccination of primary school children from early January has also been flagged for months and again we should be able to predict and supply the number of vaccines required.
Similarly, given that states and territories were requiring PCR tests three days before arrival, it should have been possible to accurately predict the number of tests needed, for example from forward bookings or scheduled flights. Inevitably we found the PCR testing system couldn’t cope, with massive queues and hours-long waits at those sites still operating. We had test samples being discarded as too old and batch testing being jettisoned for individual cases due to the high positive rate.
The rapid antigen test (RAT) option has been as farcical as any Covid blunder, with insufficient supplies. Thus we have a situation where people who should be tested aren’t, people have the virus without knowing it, and some believe four hours with a Covid case is safe! There are growing problems with aged care, First Nations, the disabled, and hospital staffing. As some wag put it, some months ago we had a mouse plague, now we have a shortage of RATs!
In January 2022, more Australians are effectively locked down and more are catching Covid than at any stage in 2020 or 2021. There is a worrying possibility that any of us might not get the emergency treatment we expect with hospital intensive care units possibly deluged by Covid patients. Surgery in public hospitals has been delayed yet again for too many long-suffering Australians.
As I write, we hear that Australia has the 12th highest infection rate in the world, and we now have a paralysed economy. To illustrate the extent of the Omicron debacle, here are some indicative articles:
And at last we have the ALP making substantial commentary on the government’s failures: Albanese accuses Morrison and NSW of pursuing ‘let it rip’ approach.
The prime responsibility of governments is to protect its citizens. Our Covid vaccine rollout, albeit six months behind that of comparable countries, was meant to shift us into the safety zone. We had the advantage of time to do better than we have.
Remember the national plan? We are now meant to be in phase D, the “final post-vaccination phase”, where management policies included minimising cases in the community without ongoing restrictions or lockdowns and living with COVID-19 with management consistent with that for influenza or other infectious diseases.
In phase D we were meant to be emancipated – it was meant to be when it was “safe to go back in the water”. But beware when the PM tells us we must ride the wave of Omicron. Paul Keating might have said “Omicron is the variant we had to have”, but I am sure he would not have let us have it like this.