Sooner or later Australian states and territories will open to each other, and the sum of them will open to the world, allowing freedom of travel, at least up to a point, and ordinary work and commerce in town and city streets. My guess is that it will be later than the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and his Treasury advisers would wish it, and not entirely on the terms set out in his four-stage plan, least of all as to vaccination rates.
The settlement, when we have one, will be grudging and acrimonious, with one side accusing the other of threatening to bring the economy to its knees, and the other alleging that the desires of big business for open slather are being put ahead of the lives of citizens - particularly the most vulnerable ones, and probably including some of the vaccinated ones - at risk from promiscuous spreading of a mutated form of coronavirus which is apparently more contagious and more dangerous than early forms of the virus.
By the end of the week, Queensland and Western Australia had withdrawn from the consensus agreement about when vaccination rates would trigger the moment for a general reopening of borders. A third state, Victoria, was being bolshy, but apparently resigned. It was far from clear that the premiers of any of these states - indeed the premiers of any of the states - had or would ever agree to forgo the power to close their state borders unilaterally if a new wave threatened. As it happened all three states were Labor states - the more adamant in their opposition because they had been very successful in using state chauvinism for resounding election victories. But the two Labor territories had not abandoned ship, and federal Labor, desperate not to be trapped by some Morrison manoeuvre, pretended to support a one-time agreement that had mysteriously become "a compact with the Australian people" - at least according to Morrison, never one to regard himself as bound to anything much.
In practical terms, however, much more than the destruction of the consensus threatens any early implementation of a quick reopening of the economy. First the disease is raging virtually uncontrolled in NSW, with the premier, whose recent performance has been woeful, virtually giving up and deciding to concentrate instead on vaccinations rather than containment strategies. Victoria, under Daniel Andrews, has not dropped the ball quite yet in the manner of Gladys Berejiklian, but is admitting that its current measures will not eliminate continuing cases in the state. The reopening strategy has imagined that there could be continuing pockets of disease, still under containment strategies, even after all but local lockdowns had been abandoned. But it is unthinkable that victory can be declared while case numbers are in the thousands. High vaccination rates cannot completely drive down the numbers this year.
One must never underestimate the capacity of Labor to blow it - look at the last election - but I haven't seen many eagles soaring for Morrison.
A more vaccinated population has some resistance to the disease. Vaccination does not confer complete immunity, but it appears (if primarily from experience with milder forms of the virus than the Delta variant) that it confers some resistance to infection, and that those who get vaccinated are much more likely to avoid hospitalisation, the need for respirators, and persistent after effects ("Long Covid"). Some vaccinated people will remain spreaders, it seems.
The assumption is that the bushfire will continue, but that it will rage primarily among an ever-declining number of the unvaccinated. Eventually the fire may die out altogether, for want of fuel, particularly if public health authorities continue to promote social hygiene strategies.
At some stage, perhaps earlier than the reopening of the economy, those who have taken the trouble to get vaccinated will come to "deserve" relief from the most stringent precautions, given that they are at much lower risk of infecting others. People able to prove double vaccination (and perhaps those with recent evidence of testing to show themselves uninfected may have greater freedom of movement and be able to attend restaurants, meetings and gatherings.
Those who have refused to get vaccinated, or who have yet to organise them, will be punished by being denied such privileges - otherwise the ordinary freedom of movement they enjoyed before the pandemic. Some of the unvaccinated will find it difficult to keep, or get, jobs, whether because the government or employers, demand that staff pose minimal threat to members of the public.
Different treatment for those who have had the needle compared with those who have not inevitably involves some element of a moral judgment - that they are "undeserving" or are the authors of their own misfortunes because they have nutty and unscientific ideas about the pandemic. That might be fair enough for the anti-vaxxers. But the set of the unvaccinated also includes (at the moment by considerable majority) people who would be vaccinated, or should be vaccinated were it not for the failure of the public health system to arrange supply of vaccines in relevant areas, actual vaccination programs in particular communities, and active public health campaigns to inform target groups of how and why they should be vaccinated.
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At early stages of the vaccination campaigns, specific at-risk groups were identified for priority access to vaccines. Police and members of the ADF seem to have been placed in the queue ahead of anyone else, although this was not much publicised. Then there were health workers, not least those who were almost certainly going to be coming into contact with the infected. People in aged care homes, disabled people in group homes and (if almost as an afterthought, their carers) were priority cases, as were older people generally and people with health conditions that made them more at risk. Indigenous Australians were a high priority. So, in theory at least, were people in prisons and institutions. Concerns for teachers were acknowledged, even if they have yet to get special access to vaccines.
One can blame misjudgements by politicians, particularly Morrison, for delays in procuring vaccines, and for putting most of his eggs in one basket. They must also accept responsibility for the chaos of organisation and distribution, not least because of their ideological faddishness in contracting the work out to private sector providers rather than the public health network. It was during this period that it became evident that coverage of at-risk groups was patchy at best, that few had thought through or planned for difficulties that should have been anticipated (such as the vaccination of carers, or the completion of coverage over groups such as health workers). Moreover, despite the talk and the lip service very little was done to organise vaccinations for Indigenous people, whether in Sydney (half the indigenous population of NSW), in regional centres, such as Dubbo, or in remote country towns and villages. The Commonwealth had agreed to take charge of vaccinating almost all of these target groups, and must accept the primary responsibility for all of the incompetence and mismanagement demonstrated.
This is not merely fodder for an ultimate royal commission into lessons to be learnt from pandemic management. It is an active part of the politics of ending lockdowns, and reopening local and national borders. First, although Scott Morrison ultimately appointed an Army general (and intelligence expert) to take charge of the logistics, and ultimately all matters at the Commonwealth end of the vaccination program (including supplies to the states), many of the problems persist - a victim of the initially poor design, poor execution and Morrison's failure to procure a timely supply of vaccines. The consequences, and the political and public resentment this has provoked, cloud the question of when Australians in uniform can declare victory against an enemy. That has not happened in the lifetime of any serving soldier.
A premature victory could be ruinous
The militarised task force spearheading our vaccination efforts has seemed to be rather more concerned with moving forward to face fresh enemies than clearing the battlefield from the earlier, unsuccessful campaigns.
There are still many thousands of elderly and disabled Australians, and even front-line health workers who are still unvaccinated, or only partly vaccinated. Likewise with carers, except that the figures are worse. In many institutions, there are only rudimentary records of the degree of coverage and the gaps in coverage, the excuse being that some were vaccinated out in the community.
These are the people who could still be falling through the cracks after the government declares the job done. The program could pause, occasionally, to catch up on jobs half done. Instead, government ministers announce new (age) groups of people who can now take a place in the queue - or at least who can now book a date for a place in the queue.
The special vulnerability of Indigenous Australians was well recognised, and doing something about it had advocates from the start. Before vaccines were available, effective measures were taken to reduce the exposure of people living in traditional communities. But the failure to follow through with effective education programs, to arrange dedicated supplies, and to organise in-the-community vaccination programs was again the fault of the Commonwealth, including, once General John Frewen took over as coordinator-general, the task force he led. It has become a priority in recent weeks only because the virus actually arrived in Aboriginal communities in central and western NSW.
One could be forgiven, indeed, for thinking that the coordinator-general's task force quickly became consumed by the intense Commonwealth-state vaccination politics. Supplies, at least notionally allocated to priority areas and equitably among and around states, were shuffled from one politically sensitive zone to another, with more regard to the political needs of the Prime Minister and favoured premiers (particularly Berejiklian) than to health priorities, including Indigenous programs.
Sometimes, the PM's own state got the lion's share of spot purchases on international markets; at other times, NSW seems to have "borrowed" stocks from regional areas of its own state (including Indigenous allocations) to stamp out instant bushfires in Sydney. General Frewen cannot be blamed for the partitioning of parts of Sydney, while leaving well-heeled middle-class areas relatively unconstrained. But he appears to have become a fellow slave to a save-Sydney strategy that played havoc with state or national equity. Perhaps he is a simple servant of government policy, were it not for the independence given him by his contract.
The severity of the present outbreak in NSW is generally attributed to the reluctance of the Premier to act with hard lockdowns once Covid was out in the community, to delays and weak measures. It took Morrison a while to admit that the hard-lockdown tactics for which he and his Victorian ministers had attacked Andrews were the appropriate responses to flare-ups.
Morrison heavily invested in Berejiklian's failures
His own eagerness to focus on reopening the economy gave initial comfort to Berejiklian's half-hearted approach. His willingness to divert resources to his own state has made other premiers particularly resentful of NSW boasting that it now leads in vaccination statistics. First, it has been supply shortages which have been mostly responsible for the slow progress of mass immunisation programs. In some areas, however, the problem has been exacerbated by diversions of vaccines. These, the premiers would insist, are at Morrison's door, not the fault of the states and territories. Meanwhile, many areas that ran strong containment programs, such as South Australia, Western Australia, the NT, Queensland and Tasmania have been successful in keeping the disease at bay, even in the face of loud criticism from Morrison.
Strictly speaking Morrison is not running for office against Daniel Andrews, Annastacia Palaszczuk or Mark McGowan. He is running against Anthony Albanese, who, while having a general critique of Morrison's failures in relation to the pandemic has not taken a strong position on border closures or the reopening of the economy. But the enduring resentments make it certain that the premiers will enter the federal election campaign, pitching their pandemic popularity against the Morrison record, to some effect. How much more difficult in that Victoria, Queensland and WA are the likely key states.
It looked at one stage as if Morrison was considering going early, say in late October or November, and wanted to position himself as the saviour of Australia, the man who revived the economy, and the champion now of "freedom", as represented by opening the states and the nation to renewed air flights. Time is not on his side. Perhaps he will no longer have vaccine supply problems by October, and perhaps he can expect that all in the population who want vaccination will have had it by Christmas, including people down to the age of 12. With whatever overall rate of vaccination - 70 per cent, or as now looks likely 80 per cent of those aged 12 or more, it is unlikely to be completed by the first week of December.
Morrison, and business, are busy in seeking to create constituencies for a reopening as soon as possible. There is suddenly a deep concern about the real impact on mental health of the shutdowns. There's an impression of deep weariness of lockdowns, and an attempt to persuade that the continuing sacrifices are no longer worth it. This was something of which news.com satisfied itself 15 months ago, along with state politicians of the time. They thought they were surfing a popular wave. The astonishing thing was how out of touch with real public opinion they were. Berejiklian may have exhausted popular credit, but the yearning is more to be rid of her than her sham toughness.
An election set for March or April may be with a more open economy, but, as likely as not, against a backdrop of continuing lockdowns in parts of Sydney, NSW and Melbourne. Just as dangerous, from Morrison's point of view, will be the scope that the "liberation" - if liberation it is - will give for revived debates about climate change, about incredible profligacy and incompetence by Josh Frydenberg in massive handouts to business without any conditions, and about the integrity of government. One must never underestimate the capacity of Labor to blow it - look at the last election - but I haven't seen many eagles soaring for Morrison.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times and a regular columnist. email@example.com