March 08, 2020 06:21:19
Staff at a Sydney nursing home refused to turn up to work this week after a coronavirus outbreak at the facility.
According to their union, the workers were worried about contracting the virus themselves and passing it to their own families. It’s an entirely understandable concern.
The NSW Government scrambled to find alternative staff to keep the home open and care for the elderly residents.
The incident was a worrying example of what could lie ahead if this virus continues to spread.
What if staff refused to turn up at more nursing homes or hospitals? What if coronavirus cases popped up at power stations or water treatment plants and workers walked off the job?
Who would keep the lights on and the water flowing?
The problem goes well beyond toilet paper
While much of the focus has understandably been on the Government’s response to the health and economic challenges posed by this virus, work has also been underway on protecting critical infrastructure and social order in the event panic really sets in.
This goes well beyond dealing with nervous shoppers clearing the shelves of toilet paper and hand sanitiser.
On Tuesday, Attorney-General Christian Porter gave a few hints of the planning underway when he hit the airwaves to remind us of powers the Commonwealth has at its disposal under the biosecurity act passed in 2015.
Porter warned people could “encounter practices and instructions and circumstances that they’ve not had to encounter before”.
A quick perusal of the act reveals wide-ranging powers to forcibly detain individuals for quarantine and enforce decontamination procedures where necessary.
On Thursday, the Prime Minister revealed the National Security Committee of Cabinet had also taken a formal decision to trigger what’s called the National Coordination Mechanism.
This, he said, dealt with broader non-health issues “when it comes to power, continuity of services … supporting workforce needs and how those issues can be managed on the ground and working with state and territory police forces”.
There were few details, but it’s understood this declaration would enable the Government to use sweeping powers to coordinate with state and local jurisdictions to keep the lights on and clean water flowing.
This may involve standing up decontamination units to ensure some level of safety or finding substitute staff to keep facilities operating.
Morrison can’t afford a recession on his watch
Hopefully it won’t come to that, and the Prime Minister maintains it’s still best for everyone to keep calm and carry on, but behind the scenes prudent planning is underway for a more serious outbreak.
The chief medical officer this week revealed the worst-case-scenario plan involves millions of Australians becoming infected.
On Friday, the Prime Minister suggested the cost of treating the coronavirus in the nation’s hospitals could run up to $1 billion, as he agreed the Commonwealth would foot 50 per cent of the bill.
As for the economic cost, it’s impossible to know how bad things could get. The Prime Minister is giving no guarantees, but he simply can’t afford a recession on his watch.
For the past decade the Coalition has bagged Labor for spending too much on stimulus in response to the global financial crisis. But Labor did manage to keep Australia out of recession.
If the economy slips into recession now because the Morrison Government isn’t willing to spend enough in the right areas, the Coalition’s economic credibility will be badly damaged. Perhaps irrevocably so.
That’s why the Prime Minister is taking his time with the stimulus package and talking about a “scalable” response. If the first round of fiscal firepower isn’t enough, more will follow.
The prudent planning needs to involve not just critical infrastructure, but protecting the jobs and livelihoods of millions of Australians.
David Speers is the host of Insiders, which airs on ABC TV at 9:00am on Sunday or on iView.
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