Health Minister Greg Hunt has launched a stinging attack on Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, accusing her of misrepresenting critical data from the Doherty Institute report and inflating the number of deaths when Australia reopens.
Ms Palaszczuk is also under fire over border crossing issues faced by heartbreaking and exceptional cases, including a cancer patient returning from her mother’s funeral and a three-year-old boy separated from his parents.
“The fact that beautiful young children or patients with cancer are being denied entry for reuniting with their families or being treated is, I think, a profound moral failure,” Mr Hunt said at a Canberra press conference.
Ms Palaszczuk has committed to keeping COVID cases at zero in her state and ruled out opening Queensland’s border to NSW even at very high vaccination rates. On Thursday, she falsely claimed on Twitter that the federal government’s reopening plan would bring 2200 Australian deaths “each month”, or 80 a day.
The Premier claimed this number was illustrated in the Doherty Institute modelling. In fact, under the 70 per cent vaccination scenario Ms Palaszczuk cited, the institute estimated 1520 deaths in six months, an average of 253 a month or eight per day.
Ms Palaszczuk office told The New Daily that her claim of 80 deaths a day came from extrapolating one graph in the modelling, which estimated deaths would peak at about 80 a day after six months.
The modelling only runs for six months, but other graphs at lower vaccination rates show those death rates falling after the peak, suggesting the number of deaths under the 70 per cent scenario would also fall after its peak of around 80 per day.
Nowhere in the modelling does it indicate Australia would have 80 deaths every day for a prolonged period, let alone for a month or more, as Ms Palaszczuk’s tweet suggested.
Indeed, her tweet sets out a scenario that the national plan does not recommend. While some restrictions will ease at 70 per cent vaccinations, the bulk of Australia’s reopening will not occur until 80 per cent of eligible people are vaccinated.
Mr Hunt said he was disappointed Ms Palaszczuk presented the modelling data as she did.
“Selectively misusing the Doherty modelling breaches good faith and damages public confidence,” he said.
“Unfortunately there was a very selective misuse of the Doherty report.”
Standing alongside Mr Hunt, chief medical officer Professor Paul Kelly said national cabinet would be presented with updated ‘sensitivity analysis’ from Doherty on Friday. It will include what – if any – parts of the modelling are affected by current high case numbers in NSW.
If NSW is the model of what lies in store for all of us, then serious discussions are needed.
Doherty Institute modelling predicts, even with 70% of the population vaccinated, 80 people will die each day six months after the outbreak.
That’s 2,240 who will die each month.
— Annastacia Palaszczuk (@AnnastaciaMP) September 2, 2021
Several premiers, including Ms Palaszczuk, have claimed the ongoing NSW outbreak has changed the national plan. Doherty’s analysis assumes only a small outbreak of 30 cases at the time of reopening; NSW has had days of more than 1000 cases, including 1288 on Thursday. However, Doherty director Professor Sharon Lewin said the size of any outbreak would not significantly change the projections.
Instead, Doherty said high case numbers would necessitate more “vigilant public health interventions with higher case loads”. That is, potentially more strict restrictions to begin with, instead of lower-level measures.
Professor Kelly declined to specifically address Ms Palaszczuk’s Twitter claims, but conceded that Australia will have COVID deaths on reopening.
“We need to start to learn to live with this virus. We’ve been saying it for a while but this is actually the time,” he said.
“No one has ever denied this and I certainly haven’t, there will be people that die from COVID … That’s a terrible thing, but we need to start recognising that’s the case, particularly for unvaccinated people.”
Mr Hunt also criticised Queensland’s border policies for blocking entry to several compassionate cases who are stranded in NSW. In one case, three-year-old Memphis Francis has been separated from his Fraser Coast parents for more than a month, stuck on his grandparents’ property in Griffith – and there are no COVID cases in the NSW Riverina.
Another is Sharen Gordon, who needs chemotherapy treatment for cancer. She left Queensland to go to Victoria for her mother’s funeral and is now barred from returning home.
Ms Palaszczuk has since confirmed Queensland Health is aware of Memphis’s case, with news that he has been granted a border exemption.
It has been reported that QLD Health was not previously aware of the case before it came to media attention.
“This is a profound moral failure. Let these people in for medical treatment and for a three-year-old to be fully reunited with their family,” Mr Hunt said earlier, before the exemption was confirmed.
“In terms of compassion, we know that rugby league players and their partners have been allowed into Queensland.”
Mr Hunt suggested home quarantine could be used in Queensland for such cases.
“It’s a system which has functioned extraordinarily well. It’s exceptionally important in these cases of deep human compassion,” he said.
“My message is, believe in Australians.”
Earlier on Thursday, Defence Minister Peter Dutton said Memphis’s case was “traumatic”.
“This little three-year-old boy separated from his mum and dad, I cannot believe common sense doesn’t prevail in a case like this,” he said.