Planning in the age of the virus

Sep 11, 2020

Are we getting to the point where the public simply tunes out when one of our political leaders outlines their latest plan, or road map, or framework for the way the nation or their state will deal with the virus? Hasn’t the public seen enough – experienced enough – in the past seven or eight months to appreciate that it is almost impossible to predict what the situation will be next month, let alone in two, three or six months’ time?

If so, perhaps that is why Prime Minister Scott Morrison is now talking about an ‘aspirational goal’ – reopening the state borders and economies by Christmas – though that’s been shot down already by Western Australia, which is doing very nicely in blissful isolation (being virus-fee and, thanks to mining, having an economy that’s in better working order than every other state that is, or even isn’t, in lockdown).

It’s not just politicians who are finding it impossible to predict the course of events in this crisis. The same applies to the captains of industry whose dire warnings about the effect of closing state borders are intended to influence public opinion and the decisions that the politicians are taking (that is, to try to force the borders open, irrespective of the concerns state leaders might have about the impact on their citizens of the virus).

Just one example. Early in June, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said that by the end of July (just eight weeks later) Qantas would be back to operating 40 per cent of its domestic capacity. As it turned out, slightly less than half those flights were operating.

His plan/prediction was, of course, affected by the resurgence of the virus and the further shutdown of state borders – the same circumstance that put a complete end to the Federal Government’s talk of a ‘snap-back’. That was about the time when the Federal Government’s six-month strategy based on JobKeeper and JobSeeker programmed to end this month had to be revised and support for workers and some businesses extended into next year.

What destroyed these plans (including the ‘three-step framework for a Covid-safe Australia’ agreed to by the National Cabinet in early May) was the fierce outbreak of the virus in Victoria, which moved at a less alarming rate into New South Wales.

It was not predicted. It was probably not predictable. And while medical scientists are learning more about the virus and its transmission every day, it still seems that predictions about its future course in Australia can’t be made with any great degree of certainty. All that the states can do is try to control their borders (with varying degrees of success) based on various scenarios approved by their medical advisors.

This is the situation as we prepare for this year’s federal budget – that is, the budget for the financial year that began just over two months ago, a budget that was originally scheduled to be delivered last May.

The government was wise to delay it. A May budget would have been irrelevant by now. But the chances are that next month’s budget could also be irrelevant come Christmas. The best thing about it is that it requires the government to set out its major policy aspirations – where it intends to act to move Australia out of recession/depression, to reduce unemployment and restore confidence.

But it won’t just be another plan. Nor will it be confined to providing assistance to the unemployed or life support for businesses. This is where the government has to deliver on programs that generate business activity, that provide additional employment, that improve infrastructure, health services, education, energy, climate change (just joking) … That’s what people will expect, in any event, even though for the moment the government seems content with giving tax cuts to people who are actually surviving the economic crisis without too much difficulty.

People won’t be concerned about words (like recession) or figures (like GDP and unemployment) but about deeds. What is the government doing. Now.

Meanwhile in Victoria, the state government has produced a more credible road map for recovery than most of those we have experienced since the virus first struck – though it is full of bad news for the people of Melbourne in particular. As with the National Cabinet’s May ‘framework’, it consists of a number of steps that are meant to lead to open borders and Covid safety. Unlike that (failed and largely forgotten) plan it actually shows the way in which progress can be measured.

Each of the five steps is predicated on how many people are still catching the virus – the average daily case rate over the previous 14 days at the time when the decision is to be made about moving from one set of restrictions to the next, lower set. The moves are subject to these ‘trigger points and public health advice’.

Everything could be back to (almost) normal after November 23, provided that by the end of this month the average daily case rate is 30-50 on average over the previous fortnight, and on October 26 there have been fewer the five new daily cases and five mystery cases on average in the previous fortnight, and on November 23 there had been no new cases over the previous fortnight.

The final step (what the road map calls Covid normal) comes once there have been no new cases for 28 days, no active cases statewide and ‘no outbreaks of concern in other states or territories’.  Needless to say, no date is given for that state of affairs. That’s realistic, though not very comforting. Victorians will have to make do with that second last step, provided it can be achieved, but it will still include, for example, limitations on public gatherings (maximum 50), visitors to one’s home (up to 20), and weddings and funerals. Entertainment venues will be assessed on an individual basis.

There’s little to cheer about here. But at least Victorians know how and when their freedoms will be limited.

Meanwhile in Canberra the plan is for politics to resume. The budget on October 6 will be followed by two weeks of estimates hearings, then one week of normal sittings from November 9 and two more weeks from November 30.

There won’t be any talk of national unity –  that’s one prediction its easy to make.


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