2 September 2022

Did our COVID-19 response go too far - or not far enough?

| Ross Solly
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A protester during the Freedom Convoy To Canberra protest march earlier this year. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

Rishi Sunak, the man who covets the number one gig in the United Kingdom, claims his government gave too much power to scientists during COVID-19 lockdowns and is now paying the price.

Sunak was the chancellor during UK’s darkest COVID-19 days, and now regrets being part of a campaign that scared people. His opponent in the race for Prime Minister, Liz Truss, also believes the government of which she is part went too far with lockdowns, especially in keeping schools closed.

In Australia NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet, easily the loudest voice among Australian leaders calling for a return to normality, is now leading the charge to reduce the COVID-19 isolation period. He believes the time has come when if you are sick, you stay at home, but if you’re not sick – it’s off to work you go.

In the ACT not a week goes by in which kids are forced to home school, because we don’t have enough teachers to cover staff who have to stay home under existing COVID-19 rules. The fact our kids’ education is still being disrupted should be reason enough to question if the current approach is the right approach.

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Next year the UK will conduct a public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic. It’s expected Australia will have a royal commission of its own, putting the microscope on how the state, territory and federal governments dealt with the pandemic.

There’s surely little question we need to have a good, long hard look at how we dealt with this once-in-a-lifetime global crisis. But the toughest early question will be, how broad will the terms of reference be?

Were the measures put in place to try to stop the spread of COVID-19 appropriate? Did they go far enough, or did they go too far?

Was the ‘Fortress Australia’ approach the right one? Was enough consideration given to the price Australia would pay in the longer term? Was the furlough scheme rigorous enough, what safeguards were put in place to discourage and prevent abuse?

Was it right to keep schools closed as long as we did? Did we provide the type of support our health services needed to deal with a disaster that quickly spiralled to a level none of us had ever experienced before?

The ACT Legislative Assembly had two select committee inquiries examining the Barr Government’s response to COVID-19. The first was established in April 2020, and delivered four interim reports before its final paper was delivered in October of the same year. It made more than 100 recommendations.

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A second inquiry, this time examining the response in 2021, ran from September to November last year. It made 33 recommendations.

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge even since then. The changing nature of COVID-19 required flexibility. A lot of things, I am sure, the Barr Government got right. I am also sure they will be the first to admit that, if they had their time again, there are some things they would do differently, or not at all.

At the height of the pandemic there was a COVID-19 Small Business Hardship Scheme, Commercial Tenancy Support Scheme, Accommodation and Tourism Venue Operator Support Scheme, and Small Tourism Operator Covid Recovery Payment – just to name a few.

Imagine for one moment the bureaucratic nightmare that comes with administering all these projects, by a workforce mostly working remotely and I’m sure overwhelmed by people at all levels needing support.

In its response to the most recent Legislative Assembly select committee report, the ACT Government committed to undertaking a full review of the rollout of the Business Support Grant and Small Business Hardship Scheme.

It’s just one aspect of the COVID-19 response that needs to be reviewed. If Anthony Albanese is going to put a royal commission in place, let’s hope it’s thorough.

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We should never forget the police roadblocks at Qld, SA and WA borders to check for right of entry.
Police in NSW ordering people off park benches, or to swim back to the beach, issuing thousands of fines for minor breaches of draconian Covid rules.
Victorian police stopping and fining a young driver more than the allowed distance from home, raiding the home of a woman and arresting her for posting details of a protest.
Health officials focussed obsessively on the compulsory avoidance of illness, failing to comprehend that health is the state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, not merely the absence of illness.
These over reacting government officials who misused their office to issue edicts against the general population must be held to account and not allowed to scuttle off like cockroaches down dark departmental corridors to emerge at the next flu.
Their docile defenders cling to the illusion of a benevolent nanny state, craving the continuance of QR check-ins, isolation of aged care residents, funeral attendance restrictions, school closures, lock-downs, mandatory masks, enforced (yes, enforced by threats and pressure)vaccinations, job losses, travel restrictions….
These were all intolerable and excessive restrictions on our civil liberties.

We’ve barely begun to pay the costs of pandemic policies. The 2010 Arab Spring was a direct result of the pressure put on food prices by the GFC in 2008. Why would anyone believe that we’ve already weathered the worst of the consequences? The IMF was predicting famines in June 2021, well before Russia made things worse. The United Nations reports over 200 million people are now facing hunger up from 2020.
We’re going to see years, probably at least decade, of food insecurity and the resulting high political instability (Sri Lanka just being the first of many).

The food and political instability are just the beginning. The mental health problems caused by governments and media deliberately over-egging the danger of a virus that was obviously going to end up endemic is going to be with us for a generation. The physical problems of myopically focusing on one disease to the exclusion of everything else has meant many previously preventable diseases have no progressed too far to be cured. The number of people who gave up exercise due to government mandates is going to be a timebomb in 20 years.

As we saw in the aftermath of the 11th of September 2001, the authoritarianism that was allowed to fester unchallenged will never go away.

All for nothing, as, at best, the deaths prevented in 2020 were just deferred to this year, looking at ABS’ published excess death numbers, and everyone is going to get this virus multiple times over the rest of their lives.

The only cure I see is, like Scott Morrison’s abuse of conventions should be punished, every state, territory or federal minister that pushed these policies should also be punished, and the public service purged.

From freedom of information requests, I know that the ACT government did not consider any negative consequences of their pandemic policies. That myopia is exactly where all the negative consequences we’re facing comes from.

HiddenDragon7:12 pm 04 Sep 22

At its height, the test and trace arrangements (across the country, not just here in the ACT) were insanely over the top and the key enforcement technology – the app – was a step down the road of CCP/North Korean authoritarianism which should never, ever happen again in an ostensibly free country. Likewise, the treatment of any individuals who dared publicly to question the restrictions was like something out of Orwell’s 1984 or the worst days of Maoism.

There can be little doubt that, in years to come, there will be many extra cases of skin cancer due to people being forced to queue for hours in the sun (the alternative being a visit from the police) to have a PCR test simply because they happened to be in the same large supermarket or department store at the same time as one individual who later tested positive for Covid. That would be in addition to the many other serious illnesses which went undiagnosed and untreated because of restrictions and the needless diversion of health resources.

The delayed reaction to the heavy-handed repression of the test and trace era, and all the associated restrictions, may well be a major reason why we are still having such problems with managing Covid sensibly and effectively (including take up of booster shots) – because so many people feel that Australian authorities cried wolf too loud and for too long.

The decision by the National Cabinet to reduce insolation periods from 7 days to 5 days has been met with astonishment by the AMA who advise that 20% of people are still infectious on day 7.
At a minimum, I would have thought producing a negative Rat, should have been a condition of early release.
Anyone with half a brain will be able to work out that when people who are still infectious go back into the community, cases will rise and with rising cases comes more business disruptions and more deaths.
One of the other concerns I have is that the 3rd and 4th vaccination rates are lagging at the time that restrictions are being reduced. I know quite a few people who have told me that they only had 2 doses because they had to.
Look on any bus. 50% mask wearers, despite the mask mandate. Look behind yourself in the line at the supermarket. Is the next customers standing 1.5m away or can you feel their breath on your neck?

Martin Keast1:47 pm 04 Sep 22

One issue that must be discussed is the unilateral imposition of heavy government authority, the removal of personal liberties and the use of coercive tactics to enforce these. Our civil liberties were significantly encroached upon and it seems that there is no one being held accountable for the abuse of our personal freedoms.
In particular, the assumption of the authority to order churches to stop gathering, to limit attendance to those wearing masks – this is a relatively new thing, for the civil government to assume it has jurisdiction over the church of God. These were not requests but were imposed as directives enforceable with fines – the assumption of the authority to do this hasn’t happened for several hundred years. A very concerning shift in our application of ancient liberties under the Magna Carta and other key constitutional documents.

And very assumptive to imply that the church of God (which one?) has jurisdiction over governments.

Martin Keast, I think you are confusing the right to hold a belief with the right to manifest the belief. The first is unconstrained, the second is rightly constrained.

There is no mention of the Magna Carta in the Australian Constitution. Such principles as properly survive in common law informed development of the Aus Const, which supersedes.

See also DJA’s comment.

The churches were still able to offer services via the Internet. People were still able to worship, so I don’t see this particular short-term restriction as a breach of civil liberties.

I hope any review will also look at how the respective governments had no choice but to go into lockdown because they knew our overstretched health, education and other essential sectors had zero capacity to cope with even a small crisis. Successive governments (of all flavours) had systemically stripped resources from these sectors for decades. This was a disaster waiting to happen.

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