Apologies in advance for such a long post but this is something I wanted to get off my chest.
The government/s (i.e. National Cabinet but mostly Federal) handling of the coronavirus in my opinion has comprehensively failed to provide a clear articulation of the strategy underpinning what are unprecedented restrictions on people and commerce, and hence how these restrictive measures will actually execute the strategy and see Australia through.
This failure will likely have long-term adverse political consequences (wiping out short-term gains, e.g. Rudd during the GFC), regardless of the success of Australia’s response, and perhaps more so (ironically) if Australia fares well. People have a habit of forgetting near misses but quickly resent the consequences (i.e. $320b spend that will need to be paid back) that avoiding the miss entails. They also get accustomed to the handouts that will eventually have to come to an end. Expect a special case exemption from every self serving interest group in the nation.
The coronavirus crisis is compared daily by politicians and the media alike as akin to a state of war. If that is the case the maxim, “every battle is won before it is fought” seems to have been the first casualty in the battle of COVID-19. What does victory look like? How will it be achieved? What evidence is there it will work? What is the exit strategy? How long will the battle last? What is the cost? What are the risks? These are fundamental questions the government has been largely silent on.
That silence makes evaluation of policy decisions very difficult, reducing accountability which will eventually diminish public confidence and ultimately compliance, particularly as people start to resent being cooped up in house arrest with no end in sight, the restrictions becoming more onerous (and dare one say absurd) and money running out. That is a recipe for social disaster I believe the government/s have under-estimated.
The Australian Health Sector Emergency Response Plan for Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) (the National Plan) is a plan without a strategy. Written by bureaucrats it is long on platitudes and short on substance, and despite one such platitude being “evidence-based decision-making” there is little in the plan that defines key metrics (measures and thresholds) and hence triggers for specific measures or events.
The 50 page (annoyingly tautological) plan manages barely more than half a page to “ensuring a proportional response . . . appropriate to the level of risk” but doesn’t define what proportionality actually means or how to measure it.
It does, however, devote 8 pages to political communications, and another 8 pages on governance explaining how the convoluted mess of duplication and blurred responsibilities that characterises the Australian health system should ideally be managed and explained in a time of crisis.
This is to say, on a conservative estimate, the National Plan of 50 pages, minus the table of contents and executive summary, subtracting the bleeding obvious (i.e. context), and accounting for duplication, is reduced to no more than 25 pages of actual content, of which 16 pages (i.e. 64%) relates to navigating the quagmire of bureaucracy and how to manage the political spin.
To the extent the National Plan reveals anything beyond the obvious (i.e. a reworked seasonal flu plan) it is probably section 18.104.22.168 which makes the telling admission that:
“It is unlikely that a vaccine will be available during the course of a novel coronavirus pandemic, unless the pandemic is long lasting and vaccine development is extraordinarily fast.“
This admission throws the entire government/s strategy into chaos because it assumes the same strategy as applied in the SARS (2002) epidemic where the transmission rate was comparatively low, can be applied to the COVID-19 pandemic where the transmission rate is seemingly high. Incredibly, the National Plan rates the SARS (2002) virus higher than COVID-19 both for transmission and clinical severity despite SARS (2002) resulting in just 8,096 cases and 774 deaths globally between 2002 and 2004, whereas at the time of writing COVID-19 has resulted in over 1M cases and 53k deaths (see here) in just 3 months. This is to say that the government/s plan is premised on the wrong precedent and an incorrect/faulty comparative analysis, and hence is worthless, incompetent, or alternatively downright dishonest.
Talk of lockdowns lasting for 6 months as Morrison routinely claims (as he is conditioning Australians to believe, albeit hiding behind the caveat of “at least”, but nonetheless reinforced by Treasury designs and costing of welfare measures) are consequently baseless going off his own expert derived plan. Which also means that the fiscal measures to date are at least one third of what they will end up, although in reality you will need to apply a multiplier to the spend because the longer this lasts the fewer businesses will survive and the greater the job losses will be, and hence the greater the government welfare and debt will ultimately end up.
The logic deficit in the current government/s response is that we can somehow minimise the health impact of the virus by way of a lockdown, in the absence of a vaccine which on the best estimate is 18 months away (if at all), but somehow we can magically reduce that lockdown by a third of the time. That is illogical and contrary to its own expert advice.
This suggests one of two things, either:
i. the Government believes the risk to Australia is likely low (having put in place strong (albeit a tad slow) border protections, and notwithstanding the major stuff up in terms of the Ruby Princess), or;
ii. the Government believes the risk to Australia is high, and hence the health system is in imminent threat of collapse leading to politically unacceptable deaths and consequent media excoriation.
Either way, Morrison (and the National Cabinet) is either lying about the severity, or lying about the transmission and timeframes, but whichever you look at it, he and Frydenberg are lying by omission about the budgetary and economic severity of their measures.
Taking the National Plan at face value that a vaccine is not an option (noting there was, and remains no vaccine for SARS (2002)), this leaves only herd immunity as a viable option. However, to avoid imminent collapse of the health system herd immunity must be cultivated over the long-term, thereby implying a rolling series of lockdowns whereby restrictions are relaxed, the virus re-emerges, case numbers rise again, and another prohibitive lockdown will be required to save the health system. At best, in the intervening periods we can invest more in the health system to help it cope and lessen the severity of each subsequent lockdown. Where is the government admission of such a plan?
What this really means is that government/s definition of victory is the preservation of the health system and not the eradication of the virus, which cannot happen without a vaccine or herd immunity, which in the case of the latter, the current self-isolation measures work against.
This raises a number of important questions: how many infections can the nation (broken down by state) withstand? What percentage of infected cases do they estimate will require hospitalisation? What is the estimated median duration of hospital stay? What percentage will involve intensive care? How many deaths attributed to COVID-19 are estimated to be sadly unpreventable in any event (i.e. likely to have died from pre-existing conditions or by contracting seasonal flu)? What is the estimate about clinical severity of the virus? What is the estimate of the transmission rate? In answer to all of the above questions what evidence and assumptions are they based on? These answers are important because they all feed into how severe the government/s response should or should not be.
We also need metrics to assess the various measures. At present Australia is faring pretty well. We have relatively low rate of infections and fatalities per million head of population, the number of hospitalisations is low, those requiring intensive care low, and the percentage recovered high. That should not be a cause of complacency as the exponential transmission rate means things can escalate very quickly as indeed they already have (for example, on March 10 the total number of cases was just 91 but as of time of writing was about 5,750, meaning hospitalisations will rise significantly very soon). That said, the number of active cases appears to be levelling off, new cases starting to fall, and recoveries doing well, which begs the question what has most contributed to that outcome?
Given the lag time associated with the incubation period (up to 14 days, median 5-6 days) and the fact that just over 60% of transmissions are from abroad (see here) it would seem that travel bans and mandatory isolation of inbound travellers has done the heavy lifting. The impact of more recent draconian isolation (stay at home) measures is therefore unlikely to be reflected in the current data. This means such measures will have only minor and diminishing benefits in terms of decreasing the load on the public health system, but will come at exceptionally high costs, including the delay of herd immunity.
Without metrics that can assess individual measures we run the very real risk of enacting the very disproportionate response that the National Plan warns against (albeit as a vague target, short of a strategic objective, and presumably less than a key factor), chasing as we seemingly are a logarithmic tail of diminishing returns at very high cost (e.g. Dan Andrew’s ludicrous ban on fishing coming at a price of 2,000 plus jobs).
The National Plan is clear as mud on proportionate response and our political leaders (state and federal) are seemingly in competition for a one-up-manship prize of who can lead most by extending the range of illiberal restrictions on liberty the furthest without recourse to medical or scientific facts.
The government/s need to come clean about what is the strategy and what are the key metrics that enable us to measure success and validate or falsify that strategy, and hence potentially weigh up alternative strategies and measures commensurate with what should be a guiding principle being a proportionate resposne. This means opening up to public scrutiny the logic, models, data, assumptions and other important information that currently underpins current government policy. At the moment there is a very concerning lack of transparency around what is arguably the most repressive and illiberal set of policies in Australian history.
This is critically important because parliamentary scrutiny has been shamelessly scuppered (it survived two world wars but cannot withstand the Wuhan Flu), authoritarian (and unconstitutional) powers activated, government reduced to a largely unaccountable inner circle of unelected bureaucrats and experts operating in silos and immune (no pun intended) from the economic consequences of their decisions, with the Left media cheering on every draconian retreat from freedom when not revelling in morbid sensationalism.
In other words, what we are witnessing is a disturbing low point of political accountability at a time of unprecedented authoritarian decision-making, taking place in an echo chamber of elitist groupthink. It is far from clear that this is leading to better policies (just like the Bay of Pigs fiasco). The Australian Health Sector Emergency Response Plan for Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a plan in search of a strategy, using tactics to fight the last war (SARS (2002)), with a narrow conception of “health victory” being an at any price mentality.
The bottom line is there is a disconnect between the 6 month timeframe repeatedly spelled out by Morrison with the plan’s admission that a vaccine will not be developed during the crisis (i.e. at least 18 months). In effect, the National Cabinet has no strategy for actually ending the crisis and because there is no exit strategy, the crisis is in effect perpetual, resulting in a potentially endless cycle of lockdowns . Being perpetual, the current response is manifestly uneconomic and consequently not viable suggesting the problem of a better national response is purely politic.
The absence of a grand strategy from day one means that the battle of COVID-19 was lost before it was fought (on economic terms and hence on subsequent health outcomes, i.e. bankruptcy, family breakdown, suicides, mental health and so on). To the extent the Morrison Government or National Cabinet can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat entirely depends on whether it is willing to step outside the echo chamber and start engaging and leveraging off the talents of the broader Australian community, opening up National Cabinet decision making to proper scrutiny, outside expertise, and hence the possibility of a better way. That is the strength of democracy in action, unlike the rush to totalitarianism which led to the pandemic in the first place.
Once again, apologies for the length of this post.