Are we there yet?

A couple of weekends ago in Melbourne, the question on many peoples’ minds was, “Are we there yet?” Namely, had the rate of new Covid-19 cases slowed down to the point where we could start to emerge from one of the longest and strictest lock-downs in the world? The answer was, “Yes, but not to the satisfaction of the government and their public health advisers.” So the opening up was pushed back again, having been brought forward by the very same government. It felt like the goal posts had been moved, and despite the huge sacrifices made by the general population, we were being asked to take a “cautious pause”.

No wonder some people got a bit uptight, and it took some tedious questioning from the media to establish what the Premier could have said at the outset of his umpteenth daily press conference. Yes, the Premier was tired, and he had been up late the night before, and he’d done over 100 pressers on the trot by that point. But you could hear and see the exasperation in his voice and in his body language as he realised how he’d managed to miscommunicate what should have been positive news – i.e., “We’re very close, everyone, and thank you all for your efforts, but just to be absolutely sure, please give me a couple of days more before I can confirm the decisions the government have already made.”

At the time of writing, people in Melbourne are still under pandemic restrictions, some of which have been in place since March:

  • If you can work from home, you must work from home
  • There is a limit on the number of people who can come to your home
  • There is also a limit on the size of gatherings in public
  • You can’t travel more than 25km from home
  • You can’t travel outside the Greater Melbourne area
  • Retail and hospitality are only allowed to open under strict conditions
  • Everyone must wear a face mask in public

And while there are some exceptions to each of the above, under the current State of Emergency, the government can rescind or reimpose each and every condition, or add new ones as they deem appropriate – including re-introduction of the overnight curfew, which seems to have been a political decision as much as one made on grounds of public health or public order.

I should say that I was in favour of the first lock-down in Victoria. In fact, I was actually glad that the Victorian Premier took a more conservative approach than some of his counterparts, which meant that during lock-down #1, Victoria appeared to be doing a much better job than NSW in containing the spread of the virus, when comparing the daily number of new cases in March and April. But I think the Victorian government should have gone harder when they had the chance, to nip it in the bud:

Charts sourced from The Guardian

However, masks weren’t made compulsory until much later during the so-called second wave, and lock-down #2. There could be several reasons for this:

  • Medical opinion was divided as to the efficacy of masks
  • The government wanted to reserve supplies for medical and other front line workers
  • There was inadequate public supply, partly because stocks had been diverted to regions impacted by the summer bush fires (and, initially, some local stocks had been donated to aid projects and sent overseas to China)
  • There were already too many other social behaviour changes that were needed, and which were deemed a higher priority

I’m not sure why there is still so much local resistance to wearing masks in public. Many people think it’s an infringement of their civil liberties, or they question the science, or they simply don’t like being told what to do. For men, I wonder if they feel that wearing a mask somehow emasculates them? For women, does it make them feel even more invisible than they already are in society? And for the ardent civil libbers, don’t any of them understand the concept of the mutual duty of care we each owe to our fellow citizens (even the self-styled, self-sovereign ones)? Having spent a lot of time in Asia, where social norms mean it is quite common to see people wearing masks in public, I guess I am less resistant to the idea. So much so, that I started wearing them in Melbourne before they became mandatory.

Of course, over 90% of locally-acquired cases which caused the second wave of new infections were directly the result of the failed hotel quarantine programme in two Melbourne hotels. I’ve commented on this fiasco before, and now the recent Board of Inquiry set up to investigate what happened has asked for an extension before delivering its verdict, owing to the late submission of evidence by key witnesses, including civil servants, public officials and elected representatives. As I wrote previously, the decision to engage private security to manage the quarantine programme is not the issue – it’s the decision-making process itself (referred to as “creeping assumptions”), and the oversight of the programme once it was established.

At this stage, we still don’t know who made the decision to hire private security companies; it’s not entirely clear which government department had oversight of the programme, as there was confusion and poor communication between departments; it’s also not clear whether the chosen security companies were on existing lists of Commonwealth- or State- approved contractors – and if they weren’t, what criteria were applied to employ them? And how did the other states manage to avoid the same level of community transmission that could have come from their own quarantine measures?

Anyone who has worked in or around government procurement will know how difficult it is to get on a contractor “panel”, and even then, the tendering process can be arduous and opaque. From my own experience, governments often use RFI/RFP/RFQ processes to glean as much intelligence as they can (with a view to keeping the project in-house), or to simply drive down the price, rather than to get the most qualified supplier at the best and most appropriate commercial rate. (And of course, there are examples of ex-civil servants forming their own businusses in order to tender for work they used to allocate – using their insider knowledge to the detriment of other bidders. In some cases, the civil servants don’t even wait to leave office….)

I appreciate there is a widely-held view that the breakdown in the hotel quarantine programme was not the only or direct cause of the second wave in Melbourne; but even if it were, it was the failure of the Commonwealth government to manage properly the private aged care facilities under their jurisdiction, which in turn revealed huge vulnerabilities in that sector, leading to the death of around 800 elderly Victorian residents from Covid-19. While I don’t doubt the inadequacies in aged care “settings”, I would have more sympathy with this argument if we had seen the same level of infections in aged care facilities in other states, particularly NSW, given that each state is under the same regime. The “mishaps” of the hotel quarantine programme sit front and centre as the root causes of the second wave, leading to the much severer lock-down #2.

Meanwhile, although the Premier likes to thank everyone for “doing the right thing” during the lock-down, he and his administration had a highly subjective attitude towards those members of the public who clearly weren’t doing the right thing. At times the rhetoric was merely ambivalent; other times it was highly ambiguous; occasionally it was disingenuous (if not wrong). This inconsistency and selective admonishment helped create further confusion among the public about how/when the various lock-down restrictions would be enforced. Worse, it sowed the seeds of growing discontent and underlying resentment in many parts of the community. And not helped by the apparent assertion that community cases among health care workers were all acquired in domestic “settings”, rather than in workplace “settings”.

Some of the other factors that may have contributed to Victoria’s second wave (and which have inter-state and national implications going forward as the domestic borders begin to re-open) include:

  • A highly centralised public health system (the current Premier was formerly the state Minister for Health, so no doubt he will have some views on that)
  • Inadequate PPE supplied to front-line medical staff and health workers in hospitals and clinics
  • Poor inter-departmental and inter-agency communication and co-ordination (plus those “creeping assumptions”)
  • A poor culture of “managing up” within ministerial offices (oh, and those “creeping assumptions”)
  • Confusion over respective roles and responsibilities, for example, as between the Chief Health Officer, the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Preventive Health Officer
  • “Track and trace” systems not fit for purpose
  • Lack of common definitions across the country – e.g., hot spot, complex case, mystery case, locally acquired case, quarantine and isolation periods, close contact, etc.
  • Lack of common IT systems for “track and trace” – so without inter-state interoperability, how is that going to work as people start traveling around the country again?

One “common” definition that definitely needs to be established is what constitutes a “household”? I’m not sure if there is a practical legal definition – maybe the Census form is one point of reference? (Perhaps another “test” is the supermarket offer, which usually says “only 1 per household”?) I would have said that a “household” is defined as a group of people who ordinarily live in the same dwelling or residence (whether a house, apartment, unit, rooming house, care home or hostel), regardless of whether they are related to one another, and regardless of whether they consider themselves as “living together”. Conversely “household” does not automatically mean everyone in your immediate or extended family. Where the lines have become blurred is when family members are frequently in each other’s homes for the purposes of sharing meals, care-giving or child-minding. The issue is not one of mere semantics – as we have seen, it is critical both in terms of preventing community transmission, and in enforcing quarantine and isolation measures.

Finally, I should also stress that I am very grateful to be living in Australia at present during this global pandemic, especially given the situation in many other countries. But at the risk of sounding parochial, I really would like to understand why Victoria got it so wrong (and has had to endure a second and onerous lock-down), and how NSW (so far) appears to have got it just about right.

Next week: From Brussels With Love (Revisited)

Bread And Circuses

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, here in Melbourne we are waiting for signs that the State Government is preparing to lift some or any of the restrictions that have kept us in Stage 3 & 4 lock-down for most of the past 7 months.

Photo sourced from Twitter (thanks, Warwick…) https://twitter.com/peely76/status/1309750743331606533?s=21

Data on new cases and community clusters released over the past few days suggest we won’t be “getting on the beers” with our mates any time soon, and certainly not with the Premier’s blessing.

The slow drip feed of information at the Premier’s daily press conferences, and the painful revelations at the recent Board of Inquiry into the failed hotel quarantine program, somehow suggest a Head Teacher who is forever saying, “This hurts me more than it hurts you” before handing out another punishment. Believe me, the audience increasingly feels like it is being tortured for its own good – because even though most of us understand why we had to have the first lock-down, the blatant failures within government, the civil service, certain public agencies and their private sector contractors have made it seem we are paying for their mistakes.

In Roman times, the general populace stayed docile as long as there were “bread and circuses” to feed and entertain them.

Now, apart from some toilet roll shortages early in the piece, and the occasional binge shopping on pasta and tinned tomatoes, by and large, the supply chains have been kept open, and the supermarket shelves replenished. (Some small grocers and independent producers may actually have benefited, as people are forced to shop local, and as restaurants pivoted towards cook-at-home meals – but equally, others may have been forced out of business if the major chains have used their market power to commandeer supply. Hopefully, the ACCC under Rod Sims will be keeping the latter honest.) Plus food delivery services have flourished due to the increased demand. So most of us can’t be said to be going hungry (although food banks have likewise never been busier).

So, in the words of Kurt Cobain, since we are still in lock-down, “Here we are now, entertain us!”

Box set bingeing and non-stop streaming only get us so far (I gave up about 3 weeks into lock-down Part 1). Broadcast sports are patchy given the limits on live crowds. Home-gigs/domestic-busking are not the same as a night at The Corner Hotel in Richmond. The lack of access to cinemas, theatres, galleries and museums means my need for culture is not easily satisfied. And while I have been digging into my library, revisiting classic albums, and trawling the BBC sound archives (as well as creating my own electronic music), the additional stimulus provided by in-person and on-location events is sorely lacking.

It’s clear that many of our artists and performers are also struggling, but their particular plight is not being fully recognised or acknowledged. In the UK, for example, the arts and entertainment community argues that their industry is under-appreciated for the financial contribution it makes to the national economy. This is not to overlook the social, cultural and mental health benefits of a thriving creative sector.

Meanwhile, the tedious cat and mouse game being conducted between the Premier and some sectors of the media (plus the highly divisive commentary generated by the Premier’s fervid supporters and detractors on social media) is no substitute for proper entertainment – and even though a couple of heads have been dispatched thanks to the Board of Inquiry (so, that was a thumbs down from the Emperor?), the lock-down song remains the same. Time to change the (broken) record?

Next week: Golden Years

Making Creeping Assumptions

Even if the recent Board of Inquiry into Victorian Hotel Quarantine Program does not reveal who actually made the now fatal decision to engage private security companies, it will have at least added a new phrase to the lexicon of public discourse – the notion of “creeping assumptions”.

To recap, based on the evidence presented during the public hearings, we have been led to believe that no single person, department or government agency made the all-important decision. Instead, we are left to conclude that this was a decision made by default, based on a series of “creeping assumptions”.

What this suggests is that rather than a conscious or affirmative decision, the parties relied on their own interpretation of unfolding events and information flows to conclude that someone else had made the call to outsource hotel security, and as a consequence everyone involved simply went along with it. As I have pointed out before, the decision to engage private contractors is not the issue. But it does beggar belief that even if nobody could recall who made the decision, they could not point to the information that informed their assumptions, nor could they specify who instructed the drawing up of the commercial contracts. As a result, the Victorian Government has spent $6m to find out who signed off on $30m of expenditure.

Anyway, one of the consequences of these so-called creeping assumptions is that the decision-making was deeply flawed because it lacked process, scrutiny and accountability:

  • Process was clearly missing (unless the Inquiry finds otherwise), because of the absence of documented minutes or formal note-taking.
  • There was no scrutiny of the “decision”, to confirm the various dependencies and delegated authorities that initiated the contracts issued to private contractors.
  • And the fact that no-one can be identified as being responsible for the decision, could mean that no-one can be held accountable.

If nothing else, this will become a case study for students of politics, public administration, and corporate governance.

Next week: Bread & Circuses

Three Wise Monkeys

At the time of writing, Melbourne is poised to move out of Stage 4 lock-down – but don’t hold your breath in anticipation: we have become used to the drip feed of information, contradictory policy narratives, and the political process of softening up the public not to expect too much too soon.

Three Wise Monkeys – Image by Anderson Mancini, sourced from Flickr

Meanwhile, the Public Inquiry into the failure of the Hotel Quarantine Programme will this week feature three key political witnesses, namely the State Premier and his Ministers for Health and Jobs respectively. Based on the evidence given to the Inquiry so far, plus the Premier’s daily press briefings, it’s clear that no-one in public office or in a position of authority can say specifically who, how and when the decision was made to engage private security firms to implement the hotel quarantine arrangements.

Of itself, the decision to outsource the hotel security should not have been an issue – after all, the State Government engages private security firms all the time. However, it has now been established that nearly 100% of the community transmission of Covid19 during Victoria’s second wave of infections can be traced back to returning travellers who were in hotel quarantine. On top of that, the Inquiry has seen evidence of people breaching the terms of their quarantine, and has heard a litany of errors and mismanagement at every level of administration.

Although the Premier as leader of the Government has claimed overall responsibility for the quarantine debacle (and which led to him imposing the Stage 4 lock-down), it’s worrying that no-one in his administration (himself included) can recall the details of the fateful decision. Pending the outcome of the Inquiry (and the result of the next State Election), it remains to be seen whether the Premier or anyone else is actually going to be held directly accountable for the blatant quarantine failures.

Not only that, but Ministers, their senior civil servants and key State Administrators all seem to be denying responsibility for making any concrete decisions on the hotel quarantine security arrangements, let alone to knowing who did, when or how. It’s like a bizarre remake of the Three Wise Monkeys, in triplicate: first, we have the Premier and his two key Ministers; then you have their respective Departmental Secretaries; finally there is the Chief Health Officer, the Chief Commissioner of Police and the Emergency Management Commissioner.

Instead of “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil” it’s more a case of: “I didn’t see who made the decision, I didn’t speak to anyone who made the decision, and I certainly didn’t hear from anyone who did make the decision“. In exchanges with the media and at the Inquiry, some of the players have even tried to deflect responsibility onto their counterparts, along the lines of, “I assumed X had made that decision”, or “the decision had been made before I got to the meeting”.

Yet, somehow, a decision was made.

So was the decision taken telepathically, organically or via a process of osmosis – the people involved simply “knew” or “sensed” that a decision had been made?

In case anyone think I am being unfair or I am deliberately misconstruing the situation, let’s follow the logic of what we are being told, and as a consequence, what we are being asked to believe. Earlier this month the Hotel Quarantine Inquiry heard evidence about an apparent administrative “decision” to exclude the Chief Health Officer “from taking control of the state’s coronavirus response against his wishes and in contradiction to the state’s own pandemic plan”.

A few weeks prior, the Premier was reported as saying:

I wouldn’t want anyone to assume that anyone had made an active decision that [the Chief Health Officer] should be doing certain things.”

And there is the nub of the issue – as voters and tax payers, we are expected to believe that none of our elected representatives, civil servants or public officers have made specific decisions about key aspects of the public health response to the pandemic.

In his evidence to the Hotel Quarantine Inquiry, the Secretary to the Department of Premier and Cabinet gave further insight into the decision-making processes. Like his colleagues and counterparts, he was “unaware” who ultimately made the decision to use private security firms. Instead, he suggested that decision-making was shared among key experts:

“I have a strong view that the concept of collective governance where you’re bringing together the special skills of different actors to deal with complex problems is an important part of how we operate,” he said. “So you’ve asked for my response, as the head of the public service, I can see some legitimacy in the idea of there being collective governance around an area such as this.”

So does “collective governance” mean that no single person is responsible for decision-making (and as such, no individual can take the credit or be blamed for a specific decision)? Or does it mean that everyone involved is responsible, and as such they are all accountable for the decisions made by the “collective”, or which are made in their name or on their behalf? In which case, if the decision to engage private security firms was the root cause of the second wave and the Stage 4 lock-down (and all its consequential social and economic damage) should the “collective” all fall on their swords?

As the Guardian commented last week:

“The hearings have been running for several weeks now, and no one has yet claimed personal responsibility for the decision to use private security guards in hotel quarantine. The murkiness around this decision […] has become almost more significant than the decision [itself]. In inquiries like these, being unable to elicit a clear answer to such a key and really simple question is usually not a good indicator of the underlying governance protocols in place.”

Having once worked in the public sector for five years, I know that there are basically four types of decision-making outcomes in Public Administration:

  1. A good decision made well (due process was followed, and the outcome was positive and in accordance with reasonable expectations – job done)
  2. A poor decision made properly (the due process was followed, but unfortunately it turned out badly – shit happens)
  3. A good decision made poorly (we stuffed it up, but sometimes the end justifies the means – high-fives all round)
  4. A poor decision made poorly (no-one in their right minds would have come to that conclusion, and the results speak for themselves – we’re toast)

Subject to the evidence to be presented to the Inquiry this week (and depending on how the transition out of Stage 4 lock-down goes), I fear that in the case of the decision to outsource hotel quarantine security, it sits squarely in category #4.

I can almost imagine the scenario when the “decision” to hire private security guards was communicated to the various Ministers, Civil Servants and Public Officers:

Member of the Collective #1: “OK, the State Government has been asked to implement the Hotel Quarantine programme on behalf of the Commonwealth, so we need you, you and you to organise the security hiring arrangements. We don’t care how you do it, or who you use, but just get it done, and make sure that any poor outcomes can’t be attributed to any of us.”

Member of the Collective #2: “Can we take up the offer of assistance from the ADF?”

Member of the Collective #1: “Don’t ask. (Don’t get.)”

Member of the Collective #2: “Oh, so we’re working under a policy of plausible deniability?”

Member of the Collective #1: “You didn’t hear that from me.”

Member of the Collective #3: “Is so-and-so aware of this decision?”

Member of the Collective #1: “I don’t know, and you don’t need to know either.”

Member of the Collective #4: “Got it. Didn’t see it, didn’t say it, didn’t sort it.”

Of course, this dialogue is pure conjecture on my part, but I think we’ve all seen enough episodes of “Yes Minister”, “The Hollowmen” and “The Thick of It” to know how these things play out….

Next week: The Age of Responsibility