Alan Kohler: Morrison government snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

The Morrison government has failed the country on vaccines and quarantine, Alan Kohler writes.

The Morrison government has failed the country on vaccines and quarantine, Alan Kohler writes. Photo: Getty/TND

Viewed from locked-down Melbourne on Saturday, the festival of self-congratulation known as the Liberal Party conference in Canberra was nauseating.

No sign of an apology between backslaps and Bob Menzies worshipping, no promise to do better in future, and no offer to help.

The Morrison government had three jobs in the pandemic: Quarantine, vaccination and money.

It ducked out of the first, messed up the second and stopped doing the third too early.

As a result, Australia’s shell of virus freedom is brittle.

Not only is Victoria in lockdown because of a quarantine failure in South Australia, vaccination and testing in Melbourne is in complete chaos.

At the heart of this sudden outbreak of official incompetence is the fact that Australia’s elimination strategy happened by accident.

There was no discussion about it, no study and report, no announcement, just state premiers deciding to do hard lockdowns and closing state borders, and the federal government closing international borders.

And so here we are, or at least there we were: No community transmission of COVID-19. Elimination.

But if you planned to completely eliminate a very infectious pandemic virus and keep it that way, you obviously wouldn’t use hotel quarantine for overseas arrivals, because it’s not 100 per cent effective, and you would make sure vaccination achieved herd immunity for the local population as quickly as possible.

And just in case, you would build a national testing and tracing infrastructure that could respond quickly to any outbreak, anywhere, perhaps using a national system of QR codes.

But elimination has never been national policy. In fact, there has never been any sign of any clear national policy at all.

Jayne Hrdlicka

Virgin Australia CEO Jayne Hrdlicka was criticised for saying we need to live with the virus. Photo: AAP

In August, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: “I think, yes, we have to live alongside the virus … The real strength of our ability to live alongside COVID is testing, tracing and outbreak containment.”

Victoria had already proved him wrong by going into Stage 4 lockdown, because nobody wanted to “live alongside” the virus.

By the end of November, Victoria had been COVID-free for 28 days: It had been eliminated.

And it’s not just Victoria.

Before this latest state lockdown, Australians everywhere were getting on with life mask-free, going to the footy, theatre, pubs and travelling interstate. We couldn’t go to Bali or Fiji, but Queensland’s fine.

So when the CEO of Virgin Australia, Jayne Hrdlicka, decided three weeks ago to publicly agree with the PM of last August and say we’d have to live with the virus, unwisely adding “even if some people die”, she copped an old-fashioned pile-on, because now everyone likes not living with coronavirus and not dying.

She’s right, of course. Elimination looks impossible unless it’s global.

The problem is, Australia is going for it anyway, but because elimination was never the national strategy, or even the announced strategies of the states that actually did pull it off for a while, nobody built the infrastructure necessary to maintain it.

So infrastructure and official purpose has been at odds with reality:

  1. No proper quarantine stations have been, or are being built, and the federal government has had to be shamed by Victoria’s misfortune, caused by a hotel quarantine leak in South Australia, into supporting its plan for one at Mickleham, although it has to be somewhere else
  2. When I went to get vaccinated at Jeff’s Shed a few weeks ago, the place was empty, and so far only 2 per cent of Australians have been fully vaccinated – well behind the rest of the world (notwithstanding Health Minister Greg Hunt’s hapless efforts to spin that into success). And those trying to get vaccinated now have to stand in long lines and phone queues
  3. Earlier this week people in Melbourne were queueing for hours to get tested – as they were required to do – and many of them just gave up. Apparently, the testing rate has now picked up, which shows what can be done.

In the absence of those three things, hard lockdowns must be imposed whenever the virus escapes from a hotel as it did in SA.

Meanwhile, JobKeeper has been removed … either because the virus was eliminated or the government simply ran out of empathy.

Victorian treasurer Tim Pallas

Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas described the federal government’s lack of support during Melbourne’s fourth lockdown as “nothing short of a disgrace”. Photo: AAP

When challenged on this during the week, the government said financial support is now a state responsibility.

Really? It wasn’t a state responsibility last year, but now it is?

Besides, only the federal government has the borrowing power to keep supporting people and businesses in lockdown, but they have replaced the compassion they boasted about last year with trying to chisel the states over piddling amounts of money.

So, we have an accidental elimination strategy with no fully effective quarantine stations, nowhere near enough vaccinations and not enough testing, which means lockdowns will keep happening and no financial support for those affected by them.

Has there been a greater shambles?

Even that Prince of Shambles Boris Johnson is at least getting vaccination right, or at least the British civil service is.

Australia was world-beating in its COVID response last year, but has managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Accidental elimination has had one benefit, though: The economy is doing very well, because last year the federal government set the budget for living with the virus, and then we got rid of it instead (for a while, anyway).

Extra spending by all governments has totalled about $300 billion, and that historic fiscal stimulus has been bolstered by Australia’s unique total ban on international travel.

A lot more people travel out of Australia than to it each year, so the ban on leaving the country as well as arriving has produced a boost to domestic spending worth tens of billions of dollars, not just local travel, but on everything.

So when March quarter GDP comes out on Wednesday, it will be another strong number.

But in cold Melbourne, it will be cold comfort.

Alan Kohler writes twice a week for The New Daily. He is also editor in chief of Eureka Report and finance presenter on ABC news

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