This week the National Cabinet nearly met its chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, in attendance. Kelly was absent from the previous meeting, on August 31, which reduced mandatory Covid-19 isolation from seven to five days – a decision not supported by expert health advice.
Journalists at the time referred to the National Cabinet’s decision that day, which was taken without the benefit of documentation including the views of the CMO, as unusual.
Saturday newspaper I learned the Albanian government was pressed between not deciding whether it would be safe to make this cut but leaning toward caution, and neo-liberal NSW Prime Minister Dominic Perot clamoring for the mandatory isolation to be scrapped altogether.
The solution? No papers. No Kelly. Ask the acting chief medical officer, Michael Kidd, to provide an “update” on the oral epidemic and discuss “strategies to combat” potential future waves of Covid-19 instead.
It is a fact that ordinary Australians, who are currently dying from Covid-19 at a rate of more than 400 people a week, have a direct interest in hearing.
Health officials see the National Cabinet’s decision to maintain a seven-day isolation period in elderly care settings as confirmation that its decision to reduce isolation from anyone else “contradicts the evidence”.
And it has potential significance beyond the pandemic, too, given that concern about eroding government transparency was a factor in Labor’s defeat of the Morrison-led coalition government in May.
Ministers have every right to consider and reject the expert opinion of public officials, including the CMO. This is the system of our government.
But Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the decision was a “proportionate response at this point in the pandemic,” without revealing the absence of professional medical advice supporting the decision, a sin of omission that threatens to undermine confidence in this critical area of government responsibility.
It has shaken public health officials’ confidence, too.
They are not the type of people who drop out. But among them there is widespread concern that their advice is being approached with caution, and growing support for the epidemiological advice they give the government to be released in real time.
The Australian Medical Association (AMA) publicly called for the CMO advice to be made public following the August 31 national cabinet decision, to no avail so far.
There is generally a growing feeling within the federal health ministry that they have been marginalized, and a perception that Labor favors economic considerations above all.
“It’s a huge issue,” says one close observer of the situation. “Treasury and finance seem to run everything, telling everyone what they can and can’t do.” Health officials “don’t feel like they’re being listened to” even as they see a new wave of Covid-19 emerging on the horizon in Europe – a harbinger of what early assessments suggest could start in Australia from December this year.
Those within the system, as well as experts outside the system providing memos to Health Secretary Mark Butler, began to readjust their readings of his polite, noncommittal reactions to the briefings.
They question whether Butler himself was a victim of the Albanian government’s economic supremacy – or whether he was forced to commit to the service of the Labor Party to project and solidify their image as good economic managers.
Since transparency concerns were a major factor in the Morrison government’s loss of office, you might think it would be a matter of careful attention to the new leadership. Improving transparency is not only the right thing to do but also an electoral imperative.
The Labor Party won and formed a government with only a two-seat majority against the worst government since the Union.
It was a solid start overall. Albanese’s popularity soared and Labor earned a whopping 57-point rating based on bipartisanship in the latest Newspoll. The preferred vote of two parties determines who wins the government.
However, this strong position rests on Labor being only the second preference of a very large number of voters. Even after the government’s excellent start, Labor is, according to Newspoll, the first preference of just 37 percent of voters – a precarious foundation.
The government benefits from a dysfunctional opposition led by the unpopular Peter Dutton, but the unexpected losers are surprised by it. Think Tony Abbott.
The one area where Labor has failed to improve the Morrison government is managing the pandemic.
Neither Albanese nor Butler responded Saturday newspaperComment request.
Albanese has been given leave of absence over the massive number of Covid-19 deaths, which, despite only holding the post for a short period, will likely exceed next month the full number of deaths under Scott Morrison in the first two years of the pandemic.
The leave permit has broad grounds.
Workers worried about the government’s response to Covid-19 are unwilling to publicly criticize it out of party loyalty. What is said on WhatsApp and Twitter DMs is another matter. Many despair of the negative approach of the government.
The coalition and mainstream media share the neoliberal consensus in favor of the “let it tear” stance driving the mass deaths of Covid-19. So the ideology protects the government from attacks from the usual sources.
On top of the right, in Pauline Hanson’s country and beyond, an anti-Vacciar district has been confirmed, so the government is safe from attack on them as well.
The reasons for the Greens’ calmness are less clear, but the presence of an anti-extremist “wellness” group at their support base could be a factor.
What about the independent community? Some of these young liberals are happy to align with the rhetoric of “living with Covid” and “personal responsibility.” Not all of them, though.
The “class of 2022” in the Federal Parliament includes a good number of medical professionals who have taken seats from the coalition.
Melbourne’s good-natured Koyung wore teal shirts and spoiled cashier and heir to liberal leadership Josh Frydenberg in favor of doctor Monique Ryan.
The seat next to Higgins was won by another doctor, Dr. Michelle Ananda Raja of the Labor Party. Dr. Gordon Reed, GP, beat Robertson to the central coast of New South Wales for work. Just south of there, another GP, Dr. Sophie Scamps, won the McKellar seat at Sydney’s Northern Beaches as an independent community.
They join other Federal Members of Parliament with medical expertise, including Pediatrician Dr. Mike Freelander (working, MacArthur) and Dr. Helen Haines (independent, Indy), a former physician at Chiltern Bush Nursing and an academic with a PhD in Medical Sciences .
Freelander chairs the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health, Aged Care and Sports, of which Ryan and Ananda Raja are now members. On September 1, Mark Butler tasked the commission with an investigation into the long-running Covid case, and it would take requests until November 18.
This inquiry, combined with external developments, could lead to a rethinking of the management of pandemic policy by the government, whether it likes it or not.
Ryan and Ananda Raja share common ground on Covid-19. On the eve of last month’s national cabinet meeting, Ryan tweeted: “The prolonged and recurring COVID is putting an enormous strain on our workforce and our economy. We need to reduce our COVID case burden: easing isolation rules won’t. Evidence is clear. 5 days iso is not enough” .
On the same day, Ananda Raja tweeted Ryan’s message, quoting him, adding, “5 days is not enough.” The tweet is still there. She did not delete it when it became inconsistent with Labor’s position the next day.
Questioning the prevailing economic arguments about shyness in managing the pandemic, Ryan tweeted the latest US research on the devastating impact of the recurring and prolonged Covid virus on the US economy. On Wednesday, she called for a national summit on the management of Covid-19, a sharp contrast to the government’s continued regression toward standards for pandemic management with the lowest common denominator common in other countries.
Ryan will have a natural ally in the new AMA President, Dr. Steve Robson. An economically educated obstetrician and gynecologist, Robson assembles the confidence of informal economic minds to inform the AMA’s most comprehensive critique of current government policies.
The final part of the jigsaw is the emerging concept of a “pandemic”, in which accelerated climate change is seen as driving the development of new, increasingly deadly and frequent epidemics. This has long been evident in science but has not yet become part of the mainstream climate change debate.
The Greens may or may not pick up on it, but it’s unlikely to escape the eyes of climate activist Senator David Pocock.
The mathematics of getting government bills through the Senate makes Pocock pivotal. If the commission’s investigation and the AMA’s growing criticism suggest a more proactive policy of pandemic management is warranted, and Pocock is behind it, the government will need to listen carefully.
Publicly making CMO’s expert advice public at the time it is provided will help citizens better assess whether government policy settings are correct. This appears to be the least the government should do to honor the hundreds who die each week from Covid-19.
The pandemic is here. New York right now, for example, is juggling the triple threats of Covid-19, monkeypox and polio. It will go on and on and on.
Governments everywhere will have to stand up to this new normal, rather than cross their fingers and hope the whole thing goes away. The Albanian government will have to show its leadership in a way it has not done so far.
This article was first published in the print edition of the Saturday Paper on September 17, 2022 with the title “Covid Testing”.
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