March 15, 2020 06:22:15
“Which of you understood the coronavirus was going to occur when we handed down the Budget last year?” the Prime Minister now poses rhetorically, when asked whether he misled voters before the election by suggesting he had “delivered” a surplus which is now long gone.
Let’s leave to one side the debate about whether politicians should stop being so definitive about their budget promises (they should) and acknowledge the fallibility the Prime Minister is conceding here. He didn’t know this pandemic was coming.
The big question
It raises the question: does he know where this pandemic is heading? Does any world leader?
What trust can we place in the crucial decisions being made and the advice being offered to a deeply nervous public?
On Thursday, Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg unveiled a stimulus package to protect jobs during this crisis. It will cost the budget $17.6 billion over the next four years, with most of that spent over the next few months.
The measures are well targeted and were well received by economists and the business community. But even the Prime Minister accepted more might be needed. He doesn’t know how far the economy will sink during this crisis.
On Friday, the Prime Minister announced state and federal governments were “advising against” mass gatherings of 500 or more people, but only from Monday. So footy games, concerts, shows, mega-church services and other big events that hadn’t already been cancelled could still go ahead this weekend.
This is what the chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, and his state counterparts recommended to COAG leaders. Professor Murphy argued there was no heightened risk from allowing big crowd gatherings to proceed this weekend.
Government sources argued they wanted to give sporting organisations time to arrange their affairs and put protocols in place. They didn’t want people forced to cancel weddings this weekend.
Making the call
This is all very accommodating, but what if it’s the wrong call? What if allowing big crowds to assemble this weekend only accelerates the spread of the virus, causing far more suffering, not to mention far more economic pain.
Professor Murphy is an impressively calm and straight-talking expert to be guiding the Government’s response to this crisis. And it is important to listen to the experts. But the chief medical officer is not infallible.
Bill Bowtell, an adjunct professor at UNSW’s Kirby Institute, is a leading expert in infectious diseases who helped lead Australia’s response to HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 90s. He says Professor Murphy and the Government have made a dangerously bad call.
He says large gatherings should have been banned days ago, while arguing school closures need to be seriously considered. Look at the international evidence. The mass testing and school closures in South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore have worked. The more cavalier approach in Europe has not.
What’s more, Bowtell says the Prime Minister and every other Cabinet Minister who came into contact with the now-infected Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton should be in isolation themselves.
This is not the advice of the deputy chief medical officer, who has advised Morrison and the rest they are OK because they didn’t spend time with Dutton in the 24 hours before he showed symptoms. They spent time with him a couple of days earlier at a Cabinet meeting, but this is apparently OK.
The fact that leading experts can’t seem to agree on the basics of the infection risk is a worry.
To be clear, Professor Bowtell is not infallible either. Maybe he’s overly alarmist. But in case you hadn’t seen the supermarket shelves lately, there’s an alarmist mood in the community right now. People would clearly prefer more caution than less when it comes to this deadly disease.
The ‘f’ word
This is why the Prime Minister’s insistence on Friday afternoon that he would still go to the footy the next day, as he announced he was advising against such gatherings from Monday, was such a strange look. Technically, he was acting in line with the chief medical officer’s advice and there’s no doubt he doesn’t want to stir up too much unnecessary panic. But it appears to have misread the public mood.
By Friday night, after confirmation Dutton was infected, Morrison agreed to cancel his footy plans.
Not because he considers himself to be at risk, but because some media outlets might “misinterpret” his appearance.
People are deeply worried, particularly the elderly. They are scrambling for basic information as well as toilet paper and canned goods. Is it now safe to go to the movies, to the gym, to aqua-therapy? What are the symptoms to really worry about? And how will millions of casuals pay the rent when there’s no work? Newstart payments won’t be enough for many.
All of these groups are likely to feel that the public information campaign, which starts this weekend, is well overdue.
David Speers is the host of Insiders, which airs on ABC TV at 9:00am on Sunday and on iview.
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