Right now, we are experiencing a health threat that is causing seismic shifts in the way we live, work and interact with each other. Decisions are being made in an environment of huge uncertainty because we are dealing with a new, highly infectious virus, the likes of which the world has not seen before.
At a time like this, it is critical that we trust the people in the people in charge. Before I was an MP I worked as a public health physician on influenza outbreaks and national pandemic planning, and I know that we have some of the best people in the world running our infectious disease surveillance system. We need them to succeed.
The response early on was led by these experts, and they got many of the big calls right. They announced a global pandemic and recommended the travel ban from China and other hotspots early on in the epidemic, despite the World Health Organisation arguing against travel bans. This action likely helped delay the spread of the virus and bought us some time.
But as this pandemic has unfolded, the national response has unravelled.
This a tough time for any leader, and we need to cut them some slack. But there’s no escaping the fact that the messages from the Prime Minister have been confusing and inconsistent. They started with silly comments about going to the footy and have been followed by a litany of contradictory recommendations and an ongoing failure to give clear instructions. He has been unable to articulate a clear strategy, and we’re now seeing politicians from different states rushing to go it alone, causing further anxiety and confusion.
The decision to scale up measures to respond to the different stages of the epidemic made sense initially, and I supported them. But that approach relies on a high degree of trust, clear communication and an understanding of the short and long term goals. Keeping schools open is a case in point. There was good evidence behind the decision, but there is also an obvious contradiction between the messages on social distancing and keeping kids in crowded classrooms. Instead of a clear explanation, parents are being confronted with a mish-mash of advice from different jurisdictions. We’re rightly asking what the hell it all means.
So where to from here?
The first thing the government should do is release the modelling and assumptions they’re using to make their decisions. The UK government did this some time ago because in a low trust environment transparency is critical.
The Prime Minister must then communicate a clear strategy to the Australian people and must be open and honest about the options.
The PM needs to make it clear that the strategy to ‘flatten the curve’ buys our health system time to increase ICU capacity, but it does nothing to stop the spread of the virus indefinitely. At this stage, it appears the only way to do that is through permanent hard-line restrictions and then take the gamble that a vaccine or other medical breakthrough is developed.
That could be years away, if at all, and would subject Australians to profound dislocation and hardship. These are only the least-worst options.
We’re now at the point where more aggressive measures or a ‘lockdown’ is unavoidable. We should do it now to avoid the ongoing confusion.
There must be a much greater effort to stop imported cases. Allowing hundreds of infectious people from the Ruby Princess into Australia was a failure of border protection when it mattered most. Reports from people coming into Australia through our major airports also highlight significant deficiencies in the screening process.
The government needs to go much harder in making sure our doctors and nurses get access to necessary protective equipment like masks and gowns. Ventilators are in short supply, but we won’t even be able to staff them if our health professionals don’t have the equipment to keep them safe.
At a time of such uncertainty, people are rightly worried about the increase in cases reported each day. The PM needs to make it clear that there is a plan in place, and that the effect of any measures put in place will take weeks, not days, to become evident.
Of course, much more needs to be done beyond the immediate health response. A guaranteed income for people, rental support and mortgage holidays, just to name a few.
But first, we have an urgent health crisis to respond to, and the government must get it right. Lives depend on it.