January 20, 2022

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Reality bites: in its optimism, the government forgot to plan for Omicron

Reality bites: in its optimism, the government forgot to plan for Omicron
With an election looming, the federal government has been giddily optimistic about Australia’s hot vax summer, spruiking success stories of families reunited over Christmas and relaxed restrictions among a highly vaccinated population. But 2022 has not been sunshine and rainbows. Supply chain and staffing problems have caused shortages in supermarkets. Rapid antigen tests are near-impossible…

With an election looming, the federal government has been giddily optimistic about Australia’s hot vax summer, spruiking success stories of families reunited over Christmas and relaxed restrictions among a highly vaccinated population.

But 2022 has not been sunshine and rainbows. Supply chain and staffing problems have caused shortages in supermarkets. Rapid antigen tests are near-impossible to come by. Thousands were turned away from PCR testing sites over Christmas. Across New South Wales, events are being postponed and cancelled. In Queensland, school starting dates have been delayed. Once again, Australians are confused about COVID-19 isolation rules and social restrictions. 

It’s like 2020 all over again, only this time the shock of a new pandemic is no excuse. It seems the government has been so excited about pushing its narrative of success it forgot to plan for reality. 

Boasting about boosters 

The clusterfuck of the initial vaccine rollout was well-documented, so Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Health Minister Greg Hunt were quick to congratulate themselves on their success in scoring booster doses, describing how well-prepared Australia would be for winter. 

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“[Australia is] one of the most highly vaccinated, one of the most recently vaccinated, one of the first to commence a whole-of-nation booster program after Israel, and with one of the lowest rates of loss of life,” Hunt said on November 30. 

But even with reduced time frames for boosters, Omicron arrived faster than the rollout. Only 4.6 million Australians have had their third dose; the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine wanes to 35% protection against symptomatic disease at four to six months. 

But by December the booster program was already behind, slowing dramatically across Christmas and the new year and threatening the government’s promise to have all aged care residents boosted by the end of the month. 

Economy in crisis

On December 10 Morrison said what Australians need to focus on in 2022 was “optimistically, confidently … to secure our economic recovery”. In August, he said he remained “confident in the Australian economy because there is no issue with the Australian economy”, blaming restrictions for holding the country back. 

And in his new year message he said Australia was “one of the strongest advanced economies in the world to come through COVID” with “more people in work, more apprentices in training, a secure credit rating and businesses investing in their future with confidence”. 

But this blind optimism hides the facts. Omicron has choked Australia’s supply chains. We have more staff shortages now than during the peak of the Delta outbreak. Even before Omicron hit, employers were short 400,000 workers.

Since the pandemic, the labour force has barely grown. There are warnings the Reserve Bank needs to tighten monetary policy to address inflation faster than it is

The economic catastrophe was totally predictable and avoidable — but the government was focused on protecting the economy in the short term rather than planning for the long term.

Impacts on education

On November 10 Morrison told students to “get excited, be positive, be optimistic”. Speaking to Year 11 and 12 students, he said that although the pandemic had robbed them of much of their high school experience, they’ll be “a resilient generation … unlike others, because of what they’ve had to get through”. 

But once again, optimism was short-lived. Queensland pushed back school starting dates by two weeksand very public spats have emerged between COVID-19 experts calling for unvaccinated kids to be kept safe in schools. 

“We’re not going to be beaten by it, we’re not going to get depressed about it,” Morrison said in the same speech, disregarding the impact COVID has had on young people’s mental health. 

Preparedness would have been great

Optimistic messaging emerged even before we knew much about Omicron. Australia’s chief medical officer Professor Paul Kelly said in late November his “number one Christmas present” would have been for a less virulent variant of the virus.

After two long years of restrictions, the Morrison government was quick to inject hope and optimism into its rhetoric. But what the government didn’t do was to plan for the worst. Anyone with two eyes could see opening borders and easing restrictions across Christmas when festivals and family get-togethers are on steroids would cause a huge surge in cases especially as a more transmissible variant emerged. 

Optimism as a tactic could have worked if it was supported by planning — bolstering the PCR testing workforce, getting RAT supplies, sorting out boosters in aged care homes, the list goes on — behind the scenes. As it is, we just got the optimism.

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