Scott Morrison came on Thursday from The Lodge to celebrate “the first major milestone for Australians to start getting their lives back”: the fact that NSW had crossed the “70 per cent double vaccination limit, as outlined in the national plan”.
And that, of course, was good news, especially if you live in NSW and in Greater Sydney, which has been locked in for a few months.
Unfortunately, not everyone around the country is in an equally good position. The Prime Minister highlighted the NSW achievement as a beacon of hope for other states.
As of Friday, the other major states in their level of double doses ranged between 50 percent and 55 percent (with Tasmania at 63 percent and ACT only nudging 70 percent).
This means that most of the rest of the country will only hit 70 percent by very late October or November at the earliest. 80 percent double-dose levels are even more elusive: between mid-November and mid-December for most.
NSW, which is hitting the much higher vaccination rates faster than the rest of the country, is partly driven by the reality of the pandemic that galvanizes people to be vaccinated, and partly by the diversion of Pfizer vaccines from elsewhere before larger supplies to the country.
Of course, Pfizer requires a much shorter distance between doses than AstraZeneca. The difference shows itself in an overall way in the fact that Victoria is only 5 percentage points behind NSW in the first doses (84 percent to 89 percent), but still 15 percentage points behind on second doses (55 percent to 70 percent) and will hit the 70 and 80 percent markers three weeks behind NSW.
The vaccination figures tell the story of how different the experience of the COVID pandemic – and its fallout – is and increasingly will be around the country. It only raises the political pandemic games.
PM’s fluctuating policy
The prime minister has spent much of the week trying to turn policy around closed state borders and lockdowns, following his announcement last week that international travel will resume next month to states with satisfactory vaccination rates. He plays hard on people’s desires to see their loved ones at Christmas.
It was true, he told a Perth interviewer, “that people in Sydney and possibly Melbourne travel to Bali before Christmas. But no one in WA will”.
“I would love it,” he told a Brisbane radio audience whose people “could fly to Brisbane for Christmas.”
But while urging people to get vaccinated and pressuring states to open up as soon as possible, not everything is working as fast in the world of the Prime Minister.
It seems boring to mention them, really: a federal integrity commission that does something about climate change is tackling structural problems in the health care system that got infinitely worse from the pandemic.
Federal and state governments fought again this week for health funding, after state and territory health ministers – all of them – wrote to Federal Secretary Greg Hunt last week.
States and territories, they said, were under “untiring strain due to current COVID-19 requirements and the already existing trend of increased hospital activity”.
The issue had been raised with Hunt as early as April.
His response this week was that the federal government already funded 50 percent of the cost of COVID in hospitals under a special agreement reached last year. The Prime Minister’s response was simply to say that this was an attempt at opportunistic political “shakedown” by the states on the basis of COVID, and to suggest that the states’ problems were their own decision.
“The work to be done honestly should have been done in the last 18 months,” he said.
The states’ point is that key aspects of the underlying financing agreement expired in June – and its provisions remain just as crucial to getting the system through as the special agreement.
In their letter to Hunt, the health ministers acknowledged that last year the special agreement “provided immediate relief and recognition of some” of the issues facing the health system, but that the National Health Reform Agreement (NHRA) “- that is, the underlying federal funding agreement – “is not suitable for responding to current financing regulations and operates in a” steady state “manner”.
They argued that the effects of COVID – sometimes conflicting effects – such as having to keep beds empty in anticipation of possible COVID cases and thus lose funding – “have changed the validity and reliability of data to inform price and volume projections under NHRA “.
“The potential for increased activity, together with significant price increases, will create an environment that seriously underscores the current growth cap and has immediate consequences for the effective cost of care.”
A very long to-do list
And all of this happened just like “we are entering the most critical phase of the COVID-19 pandemic for our hospital systems”.
State health ministers say the federal government has not been prepared to address these underlying issues. “They just want to focus on questions about whether there are enough PPEs or fans,” one said this week.
And somehow this seems like a piece with the general way the government is working these days.
A journalist noted at the PM’s press conference this week that there were only a few weeks left of parliament this year, but a very long to-do list.
“You have the National Integrity Commission, you have laws on discrimination on religiosity,” the journalist remarked. “Barnaby Joyce added to the to-do list this morning by calling for a crackdown on misinformation on social media. Which of these will you guarantee the government will deliver before the next election?”
The short version of a very long answer was: None of the above.
The PM has in fact argued that Gladys Berejiklian’s death was a good argument against a federal integrity commission, at least one like the one in NSW. He suggested this week that the only thing that stood in the way of the good work the government did on a federal body was to get support from other parties in parliament (who all happen to think the government’s proposal is pathetically weak).
Then, of course, there is climate change. We are also told that the government is “so close” to having a position – and a policy – for someone (unspecified) to take to the climate summit in Glasgow.
And fair enough, why should it be busy? After all, it’s still three weeks away.
As the Prime Minister said about hospital preparations, “the work to be done honestly should have been done in the last 18 months”.
But it has not been. This has not been done for the last eight years with a credible climate change policy or for at least three years with a credible integrity policy.
With only months until a federal election, the political relegation is living well and well in federal politics.
Laura Tingle is 7.30’s political chief correspondent.
Loading form …