Finance Michael Pascoe: The COVID political ground is shifting – is an election moving it?

Michael Pascoe: The COVID political ground is shifting – is an election moving it?

Political pressure to let COVID rip is increasing before the nation is ready to handle it, Michael Pascoe writes. Photo: TND/Getty
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There’s a push within the Liberal Party, both federal and state, to open up New South Wales when it is 56 per cent fully vaccinated.

More than half of NSW’s intensive care unit beds are already occupied.

Florida has a fully-vaccinated rate of 51 per cent. Its ICU beds are 90 per cent full and filling fast.

And Florida has roughly one ICU bed per 3500 people. NSW has one per 9500. This is why we can’t have nice things.

NSW is in danger of replicating the experience in Florida hospitals. Photo: Sipa USA

Yet the hints and backgroundings are getting thicker as the political pressure is growing to let COVID rip before the nation is ready to handle it.

The hopes and dissembling that have marked NSW’s worsening Delta outbreak are now being overlaid by opaque political games to bend Premier Gladys Berejiklian and her chief medical officer to the will of the Liberal Party’s economy-before-people wing.

That game is being played while the Premier has been playing games with the public, being less than fully frank about the state’s outlook, the end result being undermined credibility.

Anyone paying attention has known for weeks that the Sydney lockdown was not going to end on August 28, but that fact was only acknowledged by the Premier on Friday, as if it was news along with further restrictions previously dismissed by the NSW government.

And if you think it’s going to end on September 30, I have a Harbour Bridge to sell you.

With that dispiriting outlook, it’s understandable that the obvious political suspects are desperate to wave the Doherty Institute modelling of 56 and 64 per cent vaccination milestones – what the government actually means when pushing its preferred metrics of 70 and 80 per cent of eligible people.

But as the Burnet Institute’s Mike Toole told TND‘s Cait Kelly, the Doherty modelling was based on a starting point of a relatively small outbreak. Professor Toole’s modelling suggests it would take another 10 weeks of Phase 4 restrictions to get Sydney’s case numbers down.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison looks to be preparing us for an election. Photo: AAP

With the population increasingly understanding the role of the government’s botched vaccine rollout, that would come at a very high political cost to Scott Morrison.

Cue the anonymous “government sources” feeding journalists stories aimed at turning the focus, preparing the way for acceptance of the virus getting away while wishing it were different.

(“Government sources” is a curious description – it implies something a little off the record, information that’s a little privileged, a little “insider”. It is generally more honest to read it as “government spokesperson”.)

For example, in short order we’ve had:

The work is going in to lead the narrative to high infection numbers being inevitable, to accepting it, to it being nobody’s fault, to “doing a Boris”.

The Prime Minister is now on the record drawing his own line in the case load, specifying that lockdowns have to end at the 56 per cent vaccination.

Hence the NSW Premier who spent two months asking people to be nice so the numbers would come down now says: “We accept the Delta is here. We accept getting to zero across the nation, especially once you open up and live freely, will be an impossible task – no other place on the planet has done it.”

It’s reasonable to assume a political dimension in any announcement by Scott Morrison. This one looks like reopening the option of a November election, his overarching concern being to stay in power.

The choice is to go early before things get worse or hang on and hope the nation is on the mend by May, with the help of another election budget in April.

The vaccination shambles seemed to rule out an election this year, but the May outlook is increasingly cloudy.

There is an element of control in the early option: Define a vaccination target that’s achievable, claim meeting it is a great achievement and immediately hold an election before the outcome hits the fan, before full ICUs bring back lockdowns.

Waiting until May plays with the uncertainty of the bounce back from the present lockdowns being weaker than last year’s and more lockdowns.

The problem is that neither the Delta variant nor our ICU capacity care about political timetables.

Intensive care units around Australia could be caught between the Delta variant and an early election. Photo: Western Health/AAP

The Saturday Paper this weekend has a genuine leak, as opposed to a drop, a little medical advice the Prime Minister isn’t headlining: Advice that NSW COVID patients requiring ventilators will double in a week and ICU admissions rise by 70 per cent.

The report quotes the leaked document as saying such a surge would be “manageable in the short term” but continued growth in cases would “put ICU baseline capacity under strain”. That’s putting it mildly.

That is what is happening in Florida. When intensive care units are nearly full, the many other vital operations of a modern hospital are curtailed – COVID would end up killing people who don’t have COVID.

As for the ability to manage a surge, the Medical Journal of Australia covered that in March last year in a paper that surveyed 175 of the nation’s 191 ICUs.

Yes, they could increase the number of intensive care beds by 191 per cent and the number of invasive ventilators by 120 per cent – but that would require up to 4092 more senior doctors and 42,720 more registered ICU nurses. They don’t exist.

Our ICU capacity is what it is – and it’s already stretched in NSW.

In 1995 the rabbit calicivirus escaped into the wild in Australia two years before the CSIRO intended to release it, before all the required tests on the safety of native animals had been carried out.

Fortunately, it didn’t matter – the virus didn’t affect the locals.

It was more broadly released in 1996, with another variant released in 2017. It also has mutated under its own steam and another type has made its own way here.

The Delta variant has escaped at least six months before Australia is ready for it. There are plenty of rabbits caught in its headlights.

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