News Paul Bongiorno: Denmark provides salutary lessons for lifting COVID restrictions

Paul Bongiorno: Denmark provides salutary lessons for lifting COVID restrictions

paul bongiorno denmark covid restrictions
We need only look to Denmark and Singapore for proof of what happens when ‘living with COVID’, Paul Bongiorno writes.
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There’s not much doubt that Scott Morrison’s latest slogan “doses of hope” hits the mark when he announces millions more vaccines scrounged belatedly from wherever he can get them.

Half the country is fed up and impatient with debilitating and economically crushing lockdowns. The other half fears it could be their fate any time.

And if there is one thing New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian has got right, it’s her plea for everyone to take up the invitation to get vaccinated so we can all get out of this jail.

But it is only half the answer. The other side of the story is much less comfortable for her, the Prime Minister and the other premiers.

To get the full picture it is instructive to look at the experience of Denmark and Singapore where, once high rates of fully vaccinated people were reached, they substantially lifted restrictions only to see spikes in their rates of infection.

People queue in Copenhagen for a nightclub as clubs reopen without social distancing. Photo: AP

Denmark is particularly useful because of extensive behavioural research carried out under the banner of the ‘Hope Project‘.

The project, led by the political scientist Michael Bang Petersen, conducted more than 400,000 interviews on COVID-related conduct in Denmark and seven other democracies including the United States, Britain and four other European nations.

This enabled the researchers to compare and contrast outcomes and it established the Scandinavian country with a population of just under six million people as a template of success for living with COVID-19.

There is no doubt the double-dosed vaccination rate of 86 per cent of the population aged 12 and above, and 96 per cent of everyone above 50 being fully vaccinated, is the goal epidemiologists and health experts are urging before any substantial Australian return to freedom is attempted.

The Danish result is a long way from the 70 per cent our PM was spruiking.

But Professor Petersen says “the best predictor in Denmark and elsewhere of vaccine acceptance is trust in the authorities’ management of the pandemic”.

And the key to upholding this trust is transparency of communication “even if the message is unpleasant”.

Deficit of transparency

Already Australia is suffering a deficit of transparency when it comes to the purchase and the distribution of vaccines, and for this the Commonwealth bears the full share of blame.

But when it comes to the management of the pandemic, the less-than-impressive implementation of the Berejiklian government in our biggest state has much to answer for.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian addresses media during a press conference in Sydney, Saturday, August 21, 2021
The pandemic management performance of Gladys Berejiklian has been assessed as being “problematic for accountability and transparency”.

Premier Berejiklian’s performance was forensically analysed by the ABC’s state political reporter Ashleigh Raper, who has attended most of the 11am briefings since the state’s response morphed into a mishmash of lockdowns dividing Sydney with confusing messages and rules.

Raper says the premier’s ability “to deflect and then redirect her answers is as impressive as it is infuriating”.

And in something of an understatement she concludes “it is also problematic for accountability and transparency”.

Ms Berejiklian must have had an inkling that her announced withdrawal from the daily briefings looked more like a dereliction of leadership and admission she was struggling to do her job and “needed time to think”.

Unfortunately, when a leader’s best is not delivering, the state and indeed the nation is better served with a replacement who is up to the job.

The Premier surprised everyone by turning up on Monday. She must have realised that her own yardstick of being accountable when she needed to be had arrived sooner than she wanted.

Our tale of conflicting outcomes

The Danish study predictably found that “the burden of lockdowns itself fuels opposition” and how fast “depends on polarisation”.

Here, Australia’s patchwork of states, territories and the Commonwealth is a tale of conflicting outcomes.

The polarisation is almost non-existent in Queensland and Western Australia, where premiers gifted with the clear mandate of recent overwhelming election victories has resulted in continuing high compliance and support.

A similar point can be made for Tasmania, while the policy response of the South Australian government, which faces an election next March, is much closer to WA’s than its Liberal counterparts in NSW.

Victoria’s Daniel Andrews, who is battling with the third wave of the pandemic and mugged by the Delta variant that makes a mockery of previous lockdown successes, is struggling to hold the line.

But, ironically, the intense polarisation at the federal level fuelled by the looming election is providing Mr Andrews with some cover.

Federal Labor’s charges that the Prime Minister has failed at quarantine plays directly into the fact the spread of the virus came from Sydney into Victoria.

The inadequate vaccine rollout, complicated by perceptions of favouritism by Mr Morrison for his home state, has stalled Victoria’s race to protect its citizens now that zero community infections has become a mirage.

Ms Berejiklian, like Mr Morrison, is promising the best Christmas gift of all for an enervated populace, and that is family reunions across state and city borders.

But again, looking to Denmark, even if these dreams are realised they will have to restore the trust needed for our political leaders to continue managing how we all “live safely with COVID”.

On September 10 the Danish government declared that it no longer considered COVID-19 “a socially critical disease”.

All domestic restrictions were lifted.

But Health Minister Magnus Heunicke – while saying “the epidemic is under control” – also warned “we are not out of the epidemic” and the government will reimpose any restrictions that are needed.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics