Australia’s journey through Omicron is like the bus tour from hell. Steering awry, seat belts forgotten or not working, and the driver’s patter wearing thin with stressed passengers.
Eventually we’ll see the back of the boggy ground on this outback track. But in worse shape and at higher cost than the Morrison government was suggesting only weeks ago.
“Omicron is a gear change and we have to push through,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday. “You have two choices here: you can push through or you can lock down. We’re for pushing through.”
Surveying the present shambles, you’d have to conclude the gearbox is shot.
Morrison’s “either-or” dichotomy is simplistic and misleading, trying to disguise the failure to have been better prepared with a more nuanced response.
It wasn’t “either-or”. It was about managing to best effect a transition that must be made to the so-called “living with COVID” new world. The challenge was to find the right settings on a spectrum of choices.
So what went wrong? Almost everything, it seems. Federal and state governments share blame, but as PM, Morrison has to shoulder prime responsibility.
After being able to pride itself on (with some notable exceptions) coping with COVID well in the pandemic’s earlier stages, Australia has suddenly jumped from having minimal rates to widespread infection in the community (excluding Western Australia).
Obviously this Omicron journey was going to be rough. But surely it did not have to be as bad as we’re experiencing on multiple fronts.
Earlier lessons weren’t properly learned. Planning has been woeful. The relationship between health and the economy was misread.
Morrison’s much vaunted “national plan” of last year (admittedly formulated when we were in the Delta stage) put near total faith in vaccination. Vaccination has been transformational, reducing the severity of illness and saving lives. But it doesn’t stop the transmission of the highly-infectious Omicron, which can still hobble the country.
As Christmas approached, and on the back of a good economic bounce-back from the lockdowns, the federal government wanted people spending as much as possible of their stored-up savings as a further stimulus.
In the biggest state, new NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet was particularly gung ho about achieving maximum freedom as quickly as possible.
But soon the catch-22 emerged. If Omicron is ripping through, people might not be locked down but many will choose or be forced to behave as though they are – doing less, tightening their purse strings.
The lack of preparation has been even more stunning than the miscalculation.
The future need for rapid antigen tests (RATs) was anticipated months ago. Yet we’ve been hit with an acute shortage, just as delays lengthened in getting results from PCR tests.
After the vaccination stuff-ups, you’d have thought federal and state governments would have pulled out all stops to get enough RATs. But no.
Without denying the importance of RAT results being collected, there was some irony in NSW this week rushing to announce fines for people who fail to record these – when they can’t readily secure the tests. Now the NSW government concedes its policy won’t be enforceable – the policy was “a line-ball call”, said one NSW minister.
It’s great that younger children are currently getting vaccinated. But who thought this would not put immense pressure on already overloaded GPs, with many parents preferring to take their kids to a doctor than elsewhere?
That job won’t be finished by the end of the holidays. But Morrison is desperate for children to be in school. Treasury told Thursday’s national cabinet “current arrangements could see 10% of Australia’s workforce, including many workers in critical supply sectors, withdrawn from the workforce”. If schools didn’t open that could add another 5%. Queensland and South Australia have already put back their school start dates.
Morrison late last year argued that with a very high vaccination rate we shouldn’t concentrate on case numbers but on hospitalisations rates, much lower than in earlier waves.
But with skyrocketing infections, the absolute numbers in hospital are going to weigh down the system, as well as pushing aside other care, notably elective surgery.
This is happening while the wildfire infection takes out large numbers of health care workers, directly through illness or indirectly through furlough.
When the PM last week said he would “strongly encourage” people with COVID to contact their GP, doctors’ phones ran hot. The medicos weren’t impressed with the prime ministerial referral system.
The narrative that most people wouldn’t be very ill so the health system and the economy should be fine was always problematic.
It didn’t take enough account of how everything connects to everything else in this pandemic, and how the interconnections are multiplied a hundred fold when the numbers become so high. In just one example, lack of RATs weaken supply chains.
COVID is hitting these chains in a way inconceivable in 2020. Morrison this week personally led talks on the supply aspect of the crisis.
At the start of the pandemic, Australian governments prided themselves on following the health advice. Now the health considerations are following the economic and political ones.
Isolation rules and close contact definitions are being continually changed to keep the wheels turning – whether they are the wheels of the health system (trying to keep enough workers on the job) or those of the transports taking goods to the supermarkets.
But the more you dilute these rules – even for very good reasons – the more infections can be expected to increase, leading to fresh problems and constraints.
Morrison acknowledged on Thursday, after the latest alterations: “The less restrictions you put on people to get them at work, the more pressure that can potentially put on your hospital system. And vice-versa.
"The more you try to protect your hospital system, the more people you’re taking out of work, which disrupts supply chains. So this is a very delicate balance that needs to be constantly recalibrated.”
The Omicron wave is expected to “peak” within weeks. But how much planning is underway for variants that might follow?
Assuming there is not some new variant soon, the government is banking on things then calming down before the election.
Work is underway on the late-March budget with its election sweeteners, although Treasurer Josh Frydenberg presumably has been a little slowed this week by experiencing a bout of COVID himself.
Morrison is hoping that in a May election he can escape or minimise the blame for the gross mismanagement of the Omicron wave. But “long COVID” is a nasty illness for those who get it, and it could have a harsh political variant.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra