Here We Go Again…

At the time of writing, Melbourne is once again under a COVID19-related lock down. Currently, we are three-quarters of the way through a 14-day “snap” lock down or “circuit breaker”. Variously known as #lockdown4, v4.0 (now v4.1 with the added week), or simply “The South Australian One”. Along with a prevailing sense of déja vu, much of the political, media and social coverage has a very familiar ring to it – like, here we go again!

Overall, I would much rather be in Australia at the moment, compared to many other places in the world that are still struggling to cope with the pandemic. But there is no doubt that this latest lock down is once again revealing some political and structural weaknesses in the Australian Federal and State system – and the people of Victoria (and especially Melbourne) are paying a heavy price for these combined failings.

The blame game between Federal and State politicians is becoming a farce – most of us would rather see some effective leadership and practical solutions, as well as a bit more owning up and taking responsibility for where and when things have gone wrong. After all, the first known case of COVID19 was reported in Australia in late January 2020, so our elected representatives at levels and of all persuasions have had nearly 18 months to sort this out. It doesn’t help that our Prime Minister is generally regarded as being absent whenever there is a crisis – on the other hand, does it help to have him turn up in hi-vis and hard hat for another photo opportunity? And sometimes when he does bother to make it, he’s often made to feel unwelcome.

Here are just a few of the disconnects between Federal and State roles and responsibilities when it comes to managing COVID19:

First, the Federal government is responsible for external border control (i.e., immigration and quarantine). It’s generally argued that the Feds have failed to deliver a workable quarantine solution for anyone coming to or returning to Australia. For whatever reason (and we’ll probably have to wait 20 years before the relevant papers are released), National Cabinet in March 2020 agreed to delegate the management of hotel quarantine (HQ) to the individual States and Territories. The big question is: why did the States agree? Where there incentives on offer, or did they do so because they could see no solution coming from the Federal government? At the same time, the States have applied inconsistent border controls as between each other, and at times, Victoria has been able to suspend in-bound international flights, putting more demand on the other States’ HQ programmes.

On the other hand, Melbourne still managed to host an international Grand Slam tennis event in the summer (notwithstanding some COVID scares and cases), and our nation’s softball players have already been vaccinated prior to heading off to Japan for the Tokyo Olympic Games (which many locals want to cancel for obvious reasons). Plus, AFL teams were somehow able to travel interstate from Melbourne immediately prior to the lock down (did they get a tip-off?). Yet, at least one AFL club has breached COVID regulations, when travelling on a domestic passenger flight. I’m so glad we have got our priorities right when it comes to professional sport!

Second, health services (along with education, aged care and social services) are a strange mix of Federal and State responsibilities, services and delivery. As a result, there is bound to be some overlap and double handling, as well as some obvious gaps. The Federal government is being blamed for failing to secure and distribute adequate vaccine supplies when and where they are needed, and for failing to meet their own aspirational targets in terms of vaccine roll-out. Yet, as with so many public services, there is a (confusing) dual delivery system. Victoria set up a number of vaccination hubs – only it still hasn’t deployed an online booking system: only phone bookings (or walk-ins) are available. But the Federal delivery is via health clinics and GPs, with each service provider offering different booking systems.

Third, the vaccination roll-out (by age and priority categories) has seen the criteria move around, somewhat arbitrarily. There is anecdotal evidence that due to low take-up rates in March and April, some people within one of the priority age categories (initially 60, it was suddenly moved to 50 in May) could access a jab at a clinic or hub at short notice, as otherwise those stocks were going to waste. It doesn’t help that there was/is confusion over the vaccine requirement for certain front line workers (e.g., in aged care) and who is responsible for administering those vaccinations. Of course, since the latest lock down in Victoria, demand is outstripping supply, and it is difficult to verify data on whether anyone who was in a priority category was initially unable to access a vaccine (or was denied access) at the time they became eligible and wanted a jab.

Fourth, hotel quarantine continues to be the key weak point in the transmission chain. I’m not going to dwell on the systemic failure that led to Victoria’s second (and lengthy) lock down last winter/spring – from which we were only just starting to recover when #lockdown4 was imposed. The fact that the latest lock down was triggered by an apparent breach in South Austalia’s HQ is of some significance, as it re-introduced the Kappa “Variant of Interest” into Victoria. More worrying is the presence of the Delta “Variant of Concern”, whose precise source in Victoria is still unknown, but likely to have come from our own troubled HQ system.

Fifth, the calls for the Federal government to pay for dedicated and purpose-built quarantine facilities in each State are understandable – but I’m not sure why Victoria in particular didn’t just go ahead and build their own (and then later stick the Feds with the bill). It’s not as if there is a shortage of construction work going on at the moment in Victoria (much of it State-funded), so it would have been quite easy to pull that project together without waiting for the Feds to come to the party. After all, construction was one of the few industries to continue relatively unscathed during last winter’s lock down – and with the Federal job keeper and job maker subsidies available at the time, Victoria could easily have completed the task by now, especially with the support of a key developer such as the union-backed Cbus.

Sixth, Victoria has only just mandated a universal QR code system for checking visitors in at all business, commercial, retail and hospitality premises. Why it took so long, and why it allowed a mish-mash of third party apps and pen and paper systems is yet another example of poor IT implementation by government. (The Feds appear to be no better with their own COVID tracing app.)

Seventh, the Federal Government, via last week’s National Cabinet, appears to have established a common definition for a COVID19 “hot spot”. Again, it’s only taken the best part of 18 months, and we still don’t have consistent and national terms for defining “red zone”, “complex case”, “cluster”, “mystery case”, “complex case”, “unknown case”, “fleeting transmission”, “stranger to stranger transmission”, “primary contact”, “close contact” or “exposure site” tiers. Nor do we have a consistent framework for responding to a “hot spot”, especially when comparing Victoria to other States.

Finally, the latest lock down again reveals weaknesses and vulnerabilities in Australia’s manufacturing capabilities and supply chains (in terms of producing and distributing sufficient vaccines). It’s also shown up economic fragility with many people living pay cheque to pay cheque, and many small businesses, especially in retail, tourism and hospitality, will not manage to bounce back from a fourth shut down.

Next week: How about that AAA rating?

Rebooting the local economy

Continuing the theme from my previous, post-lockdown blog, there are definitely some growing challenges ahead as the local economy tries to gather momentum. Yes, the jobs recovery looks encouraging for the hoped-for recovery (at least, based on headline numbers); and property prices (that staple of banks and economists alike) are getting very frothy again. But the end of JobKeeper later this month will hurt both employees and employers – it will be especially hard to stomach when you consider that a few household brands have chosen to keep their government-funded windfalls, despite making significant profits even during (or as a result of) the pandemic, while these same public companies have also been paying out shareholder dividends.

It will be very interesting to monitor ABS data on the number of business entries and exits (CABEE), which is now also being reported quarterly, instead of just annually. The latest annual data released in February (for the period ending June 30, 2020) shows that there were more new businesses registered than the number of businesses that were de-registered – but the net gain was a lot lower than in recent years, as can be seen from this graph:

Even after a few months of the pandemic, the number of new entries looks to have declined significantly, with a corresponding rate of increase in exits – and the net increase was already on a steep downward trajectory from 2017-18.

According to the ABS data, “In 2019-20 three industries accounted for more than half of the net annual increase in businesses, these were:

  • Transport, postal and warehousing
  • Professional, scientific and technical services
  • Health care and social assistance”

None of this data should be too surprising; further, we should expect to see a significant number of exits from the retail, hospitality and tourism sectors. Government support in the form of domestic travel vouchers and discounted air tickets will only go so far to reverse the fortunes of airline, hotel and tour operators. (The folks in Queensland must be happy with the twin benefit of being a desirable destination for both domestic holidays and Hollywood film production.)

While on-line shopping has helped to keep retail afloat, bricks and mortar retail has been dealt a heavy blow, from which it will take a long time to recover – many people have no doubt got used to e-commerce, and can’t be enticed back to the shops.

From what I see in Melbourne, the CBD is still running at 40-60% capacity (depending on location, sector, and day of the week). Mondays are definitely quiet, it gets busier on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and then starts to taper off again on Fridays, with people opting to “work from home” as the weekend draws near. Last week, one business group wants companies to close at 4.00pm on Fridays, to encourage workers to hang out in the city after work – but Fridays has always been known as POETS day, so I hardly think anyone still here at the end of the week needs any encouragement to down tools any earlier…

There are still so many construction sites within the CBD, both new build and renovations. But who is going to be occupying this new and refurbished real estate – especially as offices are still limited to 75% capacity, and employees seem reluctant to come back to the office full time? Many shops (old and new) remain boarded up. Some cafes have not even bothered to re-open at all, let alone just on the busy days. Doubtless some current construction projects have been brought forward to take advantage of JobKeeper payments, quieter streets and low interest rates – but it means that in some areas, whole blocks lie empty and virtually devoid of any business, and it feels that many shops don’t see a customer all day.

Unfortunately, with politicians distracted by non-economic matters (plus the small tasks of managing hotel quarantine and rolling out a vaccination programme), we are only seeing short-term responses and band-aid solutions, rather than strategic and visionary policy-making. Neither our governments nor the opposition parties (of all persuasions) seem willing or capable of serious (and non-partisan) debate on things like Universal Basic Income, structural reform of the economy, and instilling innovation across all areas of industry. Instead, they prefer to tinker at the edges (tax, superannuation, industrial relations), engage in Parliamentary point-scoring, and maintain the status quo within their respective supporter base. Something has to change, and soon.

Next week: Victorian Tech Startup Week

Expats vs Ingrates?

Just as we were starting to think that Australia has largely beaten Covid, the past few weeks has seen the topic heat up again on a number of fronts, especially the thorny issue of border control.

First, a series of community outbreaks in and around Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne were all traced back directly or indirectly to returning overseas travellers. This again brought the hotel quarantine programme into the spotlight – and given the poor record of Victoria’s HQP management (which led to the Stage 4 lock-down for much of last year, as well as causing several hundred deaths among aged care residents), State Governments are under increased scrutiny not to stuff it up (again).

Second, there are something like 35,000 Australian citizens living and working overseas who are still trying to get home. Since many of them are based in countries with escalating infection rates (and extra-contagious strains of Coronavirus), it’s no wonder there is a lot of circumspection about bringing them back in a hurry. While I have a lot of sympathy for those expats who are stranded overseas, at the same time, they went abroad by choice. There is always a risk that international travel can be disrupted, as we have witnessed with increased regularity over the past 20 years, thanks to terrorism, volcanoes, tsunamis and geopolitical events. However, this has not stopped some expats complaining that their fellow Australians don’t want them back; some have been highly critical of this “smug” attitude: “we’re all right, but you can stay away and fend for yourselves”.

Third, the latest domestic border closures left numerous Victorian residents stuck in NSW. Many of them had only recently managed to travel interstate for the holidays, having just emerged from months of local lock-down. No doubt some of those affected may have a bit more sympathy for those Australians stranded abroad?

Of course, all these border restrictions might not be so hard to stomach if we didn’t have the spectacle of professional sports players being flown in (specially from overseas) to hit a few balls around. The fact that one cohort of these international visitors has managed to bring Covid back into the country is not helping. Nor the fact that a few of these over-paid sports “stars” and their partners appear to be acting like spoiled brats as they endure quarantine in 5-star hotels…..

Talk about being ungrateful.

Next week: The Day That Can’t Be Named…

Goodbye 2020

Just when we thought it was safe to go out and about, Covid19 has once again put much of Australia on high alert, following the latest virus outbreak in New South Wales. And with impeccable timing, this cluster has emerged only a few days before the Christmas holidays – peak super-spreader season. On top of the months of lock-down, working from home, toilet paper shortages, job losses, food deliveries, economic disruption, closed borders, non-stop streaming, social distancing, restricted movements, panic buying, mask wearing, night-time curfews, Zoom calls, on-line shopping, cancelled events and home-made entertainment, we now have the prospect of a muted festive period. Like most people, I will be glad to see the back of 2020 – not that 2021 will necessarily be a whole lot better, given the ongoing rates of infection around the world, and the other knock-on effects of the pandemic.

My holiday plans are all mapped out….

Overall, I can count myself fortunate to have had a “good pandemic” – I managed to keep working from home, I don’t work in any of the front line sectors (health, education, hospitality, logistics, tourism), I live close to public parks and open spaces for daily exercise, and none of my immediate family or circle of friends caught the virus (although I have spoken to a number of people who were not so lucky). However, my travel plans were severely disrupted, so I have been unable to see any of my family overseas, and the prospect of visiting them in 2021 still looks remote.

As I write, the Report into Victoria’s failed Hotel Quarantine Program has just been released. The findings conclude that no single person was responsible for the ill-fated decision to engage private security firms to enforce the quarantine restrictions (which in turn led to Victoria’s second wave and Stage 4 lock-down for over 100 days). Instead, the Report underscores the notion of “acquiescence” (and “creeping assumptions“) – and of course, the failure of governance and proper decision-making.

The significance of this Report is now being brought into stark relief in light of the latest NSW outbreak – which appears to be as a result of a breach in hotel quarantine measures. Having read the Executive Summary, it’s clear that respective Victorian government departments and agencies charged with implementing and managing the HQP did not understand their specific roles and responsibilities. Regardless of the decision to engage private security firms, it seems that the procurement process was seriously flawed; and even if the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Resources was not at fault in how it hired certain private-sector security firms, it’s a serious oversight (and failure of process) that neither it nor the Department of Health and Human Services were fully aware of who was accountable for monitoring these contractors.

Of course, the ramifications of the US Presidential Election and a no-deal Brexit are still playing out – and the New Year is unlikely to bring immediate closure. For myself, I am lying low and staying close to home during the Saturnalia celebrations. As the above photo suggests, my plans involve nothing much more than catching up on my reading, and exploring my wine collection. Consequently, this blog will be taking a break for a few weeks, but I trust that this holiday season will bring a welcome respite from the events of 2020 for you and yours. Thanks for reading.

Next: The NGV Triennial