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…..
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.
As we gradually emerge from 3 months of lock-down in Melbourne, there is a noticeable level of unease and anxiety about going shopping, sitting in cafes and restaurants, joining outdoor gatherings, and simply being out and about again. Many people are understandably exercising a degree of caution when it comes to interacting with members of the public. One of my friends describes this as “FOGO” – Fear Of Going Out.
The need for the Stage 4 lock-down (one of the longest and severest in the world) was largely the result of failures in the local hotel quarantine programme, and the consequent community transmission. It has been a long journey back to opening up, with a few speed humps along the way. Apart from a few objectors and dissenters, Melburnians by and large were happy to comply with the lock-down regulations, given their undoubted success in reducing the number of new cases. This was especially so when comparing our local situation with the second and third waves in other parts of the world.
I must admit to being wary when I see people not wearing masks in public, given that this measure (which I believe should have been introduced during the first wave back in March) has been a significant factor in reducing the rate of transmission. Even though, as from this week, masks are no longer mandatory outdoors (but will continue to be required indoors (shops, cinemas, etc.) and on public transport, I will continue to be on my guard. If people get offended at that, then all I can say is they don’t know where I have been, and I don’t know where they have been – I’m not yet willing to trust everyone on face value. (Reference the recent problems of people lying about their exact whereabouts during contact tracing.)
The general willingness to comply with the lock-down measures, and the resulting public wariness about opening up again, prompted my significant other to describe this as a form of Stockholm Syndrome. We have become conditioned to our circumstances, even against our own will or inclinations, and continue to act in lock-down mode (social distancing, self-isolating, avoiding public gatherings) despite the lifting of restrictions. I know from the few social engagements I have had over the past couple of weeks, including with family members and long-standing friends, there is some awkwardness in greetings and face to face interactions as we become accustomed to COVID-Safe etiquette.
There is also the challenge of re-entry as we emerge from lock-down. When the first lock-down was eased in June, notwithstanding the partial relaxation, I continued to maintain my distance. I anticipated that some people would over-compensate and even go overboard in their rush to “get back on the beers”, and start socialising again in large numbers. It felt like people forgot that as with deep-sea diving, if you don’t decompress gradually, you can get the bends. That’s what appears to have happened in a number of the hot-spots which led to the second wave, as evidenced by significant transmission rates in domestic settings.
One podcast I heard recently was recorded by an academic who studies people working in long periods of isolation (Antarctica, Space Station). A key part of her research is in helping them to re-adjust to their new environment as they emerge back into the community. So we in Melbourne will need to keep re-calibrating over the coming months as we establish a balance between comfort and caution.
As we head into the summer holidays, the next challenge for many employers and their staff will be in going back to the office, once the “work from home directive” is lifted.
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:
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:
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.