Opinion Paul Bongiorno: The Morrison government is losing the race against a fast-mutating pandemic

Paul Bongiorno: The Morrison government is losing the race against a fast-mutating pandemic

Scott Morrison's pandemic plan is to not lose political face
Scott Morrison's pandemic plan is to not lose political face, Paul Bongiorno writes. Photo: Getty/TND
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The news out of Victoria is a chilling indictment of the failure of  Australia’s national government to face up to the challenges of a pandemic that’s far from over.

What’s more, the virus is rapidly outpacing the government.

It is almost impossible to believe that we haven’t learned from last year, when 655 aged-care residents died at the hands of the virus in federally funded and regulated facilities.

Consider this: Last November the federal government lifted the ban on aged carers working in more than one nursing home and, at the same time, withdrew emergency income support.

Now we learn the virus has again invaded the high-risk settings of aged-care facilities; an infected worker in Victoria has taken the virus from one care home to another.

The fact that she was doing this is just more evidence that this low-paid job impels people to work in more than one location to make ends meet.

And despite the recommendation of the Aged Care Royal Commission that carers needed to be better paid and trained, the federal government won’t support a union application in the Fair Work Commission for a wage rise.

Could it be all of this complacency and negligence is driven by greater concern for the bottom line of private providers, than for the welfare of older Australians and their carers?

Acting Victorian Premier James Merlino on Monday warned “we are running neck and neck with this outbreak right now”.

His chief health officer Professor Brett Sutton made it very clear that the outbreak “may well get worse before it gets better” leaving open the necessity to prolong the statewide crippling lockdown beyond one week.

Victoria is trying to run down the highly infectious Indian variant, a task that hasn’t been achieved anywhere else in the world.

The only way to assure community safety is a majority of the population being fully vaccinated.

But the Commonwealth government has been asleep at the wheel using glib lines like “it’s not a race”, in a vain attempt to mask its ineptitude.

Vaccine fraud and a black market threaten Australia
As the rollout lags onwards, we’re seeing less and less Morrison-holds-vaccine photo ops.

Earlier promises to have the 200,000 or so older Australians who live in aged-care residences and their 32,000 carers vaccinated by Easter have been lost in a fog of spin.

New research in Britain shows two shots of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines are needed to consider a person is adequately covered against the new variants.

The risks of the Indian variant escaping Victoria can’t be ignored – either through spread or another leak from hotel quarantine.

(The stubborn insistence that hotel quarantine is 99.9 per cent effective was always dubious marketing and has been shown to be such.)

The individual cabin design facility at Howard Springs in the Northern Territory on the other hand has proven 100 per cent effective in containing the virus.

No wonder the premiers are increasingly frustrated.

Victoria is still waiting on the Morrison government to green light a purpose-built quarantine facility, despite the state having done all the planning work.

This lack of federal urgency or initiative is replicated in Queensland.

Despite the federal government being handed detailed plans for a facility near Toowoomba – the file is an inch thick and has been the subject of discussion between federal and state officials – but the Prime Minister pretends it’s a back of envelope exercise for a pipe dream in the desert.

New South Wales has been calling for a more ambitious plan to vaccinate all Australians and went ahead of the federal government by opening a giant vaccine hub at Homebush with plans for more.

The only way Australia will be able to replicate the mass vaccination performance of the United States or Britain will be for the Morrison government to eat humble pie, sideline its cumbersome and slow GP rollout and provide millions of doses to the states when they very belatedly become available.

One NSW Health official says it’s the only rational course, but it may well not suit Mr Morrison’s political agenda.

Until then the entire nation is at the mercy of a mutating virus, with lockdowns the only effective way to provide community safety.

How else would any state premier deal with 300-plus exposure sites all over their metropolitan area and beyond?

In the meantime the Morrison government will have to face up to the fact that the billions of dollars spent last year dealt with the situation then; Victoria’s plea for millions more support is confronting the situation now.
The virus is still racing and threatens to outpace us all.

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