The announcement came across the plane’s PA system when the plane from London – with a friend on its way back from a funeral – taxied to the terminal at Sydney Airport.
In accordance with current NSW regulations, passengers were asked to perform a rapid antigen test within 24 hours and isolate until they received a result.
But as is the case almost everywhere in Australia, there were no RATs available at the airport.
She had taken some samples with “but there will probably be people coming in who do not have them”, my friend said. “It seems pretty crazy. I thought they would hand them out to everyone who went ashore.”
Welcome to A’straya.
There are plenty of stories about the apparent idiocy of the conflicts created by unraveling public health policies – statements about commitments to meet different test requirements or rules that just do not make sense anymore – but we start with this one because it has threads, that goes into so many other chaos right now.
Consider this: If my friend had landed in Queensland, she would have had to go on a 14-day home quarantine. In Western Australia, entering a 14 day hotel quarantine at your own expense.
Each state and territory now has its own rules. But it also raises the question of why we still have border restrictions in place.
As the former head of the Ministry of Health, Jane Halton, told 7.30 this week, the value of the restrictions is questionable when the number of COVID infections in Australia is now higher than in the US or UK. (As of January 12, 397.4 per 100,000 compared to 234.4 in the United States and 221 in the United Kingdom, according to the Financial Times coronavirus tracker.)
Closed borders no longer work
Closing international borders was one of the first things governments did to “keep us safe”. But they no longer work. Now their primary effect is to keep out many of the workers we have traditionally relied on to fill jobs, even before the shortage created by people getting sick from COVID or being forced to isolate. According to this week’s figures, there were 400,000 vacancies in Australia in November.
Perhaps we could add an obligation to BYO-RATTER to the existing requirement – for those who are currently allowed to come here – to prove that they are double-vaccinated.
Rapid antigen tests have suddenly become the key to society’s functioning, and the best symbol of how the whole “government to get out of your face” thing seems to have gone so spectacularly awry in the last six weeks.
This message coincidentally coincided with the arrival of Omicron, a development that required perhaps the biggest gear shift in politics to date.
At his post-National Cabinet press conference on Thursday afternoon, the Prime Minister noted that the political goal of the National Cabinet was “a constant daily process of balancing the need to keep people at work and protect our hospitals”.
The only problem is how inadequate the government seems to be equipped to handle this balancing task.
The national cabinet – that is, the states as well as the federal government, of course – on Thursday agreed to further relax the rules for “close contacts”, which require members of the same household as a COVID case to be isolated for seven days.
With a potential for up to 10 percent of the workforce from work, according to the prime minister, but with some industries suggesting the rate of their companies is up to 50 percent, that was an understandable move.
The hinge on which it all works
The new scheme will mean that workers in transport, freight, logistics, emergency services, energy, water, waste management, food, beverages, telecommunications, data, radio and television, media, education and the childcare industry will be allowed to turn back to work immediately after a negative quick test.
And of course there is the friction.
The fast antigen tests are hinged on how it all works. But the slightly irritated way in which the Prime Minister dealt with questions about the lack of tests said a lot about the way in which governments collectively not only seem to have (not) planned or anticipated the probable demand for the tests, but seem to be almost at a time when it has all just become too difficult for them to figure out what to do about it.
The federal government bought tests for places within its area of responsibility such as elderly care, the prime minister said, and the states and territories did the same.
And companies – yes, some of them – had told him they had their own supplies (and once again asked the question why, if it was so obvious to the companies that they needed these tests, then it was not so obvious to governments, especially when many voices, including the AMA, urged them to do so).
The idea that someone could have made some sort of status statement of the collective national supply and figured out where the gaps were seemed too much to expect.
Instead, governments are announcing rules about who can, or even “should” be at work, without feeling any apparent obligation to provide the tools it obliges people to use – RATs – to do so.
Small businesses and unions call the response inadequate, and further call for RATs to be free for all, both to help the economy function and to stop the further spread of disease and people who become ill (and dare to say to put more pressure on hospitals).
The interruption between the lived experience of most ordinary people and the statements of the government only seems to be growing.
Fatigue over the role of government
Problems with the distribution of childhood vaccines this week – in which GPs had to cancel a number of appointments after receiving emails that there were supply problems – were met with bold statements, including from the coordinator of the national COVID Vaccine Taskforce, Lieutenant General JJ Frewen that there were plenty of supplies in the country.
That may be the case, but why not just explain what were obviously some logistical problems in the distribution of them, instead of suggesting that they did not exist?
The fatigue over the role of government right now feels almost as if it is greater with governments than a population that might just feel a little abandoned.
For just as governments are throwing up their hands on the supply of RATs (“lots of them will come here in a few weeks”), so governments of both political persuasions are now overwhelmingly arguing against any new form of financial support, even in the midst of signs that the economy has returned to its lowest levels seen in last year’s Delta outbreak.
The economic downturn, the argument goes, is not a result of government-imposed measures, and therefore there is no responsibility for them to offer support.
It’s hard not to understand that the references to a pinnacle in cases, now in NSW and in other states in the coming weeks, reflect the tired view of governments that this is just something to be endured and then it will go away.
And it can do well. Only to be replaced by another manifestation of a crisis for which we are underprepared.
Laura Tingle is 7.30’s political chief correspondent.
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