A lot of Australia’s COVID rules don’t make sense – and government fatigue is growing

The announcement came via the plane’s PA system as the flight from London – carrying a friend returning from a funeral – was moved to the arrivals hall at Sydney Airport.

In line with current NSW rules, passengers were required to take 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.

I did some tests on her “but there must be people who can’t find her,” my friend sent her. “It sounds so crazy. I thought they’d hand it out to everyone who came down.”

Welcome to Estraya.

There are plenty of stories about apparent stupidity in the conflicts that have arisen from dismantling public health policies — statements of commitments to meet different testing requirements, or rules that just don’t make sense anymore — but we’ll start with this, because it has threads that go into a lot of other messes now.

Consider this: if my girlfriend had landed in Queensland, she would have had to go into a 14-day home quarantine. In Western Australia, to 14 days of hotel quarantine at its own expense.

Two women push their luggage as they arrive at Sydney Airport
Closed international borders were one of the first things governments did to “keep us safe”. But they are no longer working.(AFP: Mark Baker)

Each country and territory now has its own rules. But it also raises the question of why border controls continue to be imposed.

As the former head of the Department of Health, Jane Halton, said at 7.30 this week, the value of the restrictions is questionable when the rate of COVID infections in Australia is now higher than in the United States or the United Kingdom. (As of January 12, it’s 397.4 per 100,000, compared to 234.4 in the US and 221 in the UK, according to the Financial Times coronavirus tracker.)

Closed borders no longer work

Closed international borders were one of the first things governments did to “keep us safe”. But they are no longer working. Now its main impact is turning away a lot of workers we traditionally depend on to fill jobs, even before the shortages caused by people who have contracted COVID or had to isolate. According to figures for this week, there were 400,000 job vacancies in Australia in November.

Perhaps we can add a commitment for BYO RATs to the requirement – for those who are currently allowed to come here – to prove that they have been double vaccinated.

Rapid antigen tests have suddenly become key to society’s performance, and seem the best symbol of how spectacularly the entire government has gone off your face in the past six weeks.

Those messages happened to coincide with the arrival of Omicron, a development that required perhaps the biggest shift in policy to date.

At the Cabinet briefing on Thursday afternoon, the Prime Minister noted that the goal of national Cabinet policy is “a continuous daily process of balancing the need to keep people at work and protect our hospitals”.

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The National Cabinet eases the rules for isolating close contact for more sectors

The only problem is how ill-equipped the government appears to be to manage this balancing task.

The national cabinet — meaning states as well as the federal government, of course — agreed on Thursday to further relax “close contacts” rules that require members of the same family as a COVID case to be isolated for seven days.

With up to 10 per cent of the workforce potentially out of work, according to the prime minister, but with some industries reporting the rate in their businesses as high as 50 per cent, it was an understandable move.

The hinge on which this whole thing works

The new system will mean that workers in the transportation, shipping, logistics, emergency services, energy, water, waste management, food and beverage, telecommunications, data, broadcast, media, education and childcare industries will be allowed to return to work immediately after a negative rapid test.

And of course, there is a problem.

Rapid antigen tests are the hinge on which this whole thing is working. However, the slightly disturbing way the Prime Minister handled questions about the lack of testing said a lot about the way governments collectively seemed to not only plan (did not) plan or anticipate the potential demand for tests, but seemed to have almost reached a point. It’s hard for them to decide what to do about it.

Yellow fluoro sign at the entrance reads the chemist Yellow fluoro sign at the entrance reads the chemist
Retail supply of RATs remains limited and is unlikely to improve significantly for several weeks.(ABC News: Kimberly Bernard)

The prime minister said the federal government has been buying tests for places under its responsibilities such as elderly care, and states and territories are doing the same.

And companies had told him—well, some of them—that they had their own supplies (begging, again, the question of why, if it was so clear to companies that they needed these tests, it wasn’t so obvious to governments, especially when many voices, including So the AMA, urging them to do so).

The idea that someone might have done some sort of assessment of the collective national supply and worked out where the holes would have seemed to be more than might be expected.

Instead, governments declare rules about who can, or even “should” be at work, without feeling any explicit obligation to provide the tools they compel people to use – RATs – to do so.

Small businesses and unions are calling for a response as inadequate and, moreover, calling for RATs to be free for all, in order to help the economy run and stop more diseases from spreading and making people sick (and dare we put more pressure on hospitals).

The disconnect between the experience of most ordinary people and the statements of the government seems to be growing.

Weary of the role of government

Problems with the distribution of children’s vaccines this week – which led to GPs having to cancel a batch of appointments after receiving emails of supply problems – were met with bold announcements, including from the coordinator of the National COVID Vaccine Task Force, the general team. JJ Frewen, that there are plenty of supplies in the country.

That may be the case, but why not just explain what was clearly some logistical problem with its distribution, instead of pointing out that it doesn’t exist?

The feeling of boredom with the role of government now seems to be greater with governments than with the population, who might feel a little abandoned.

Just as governments are putting their hands in the air over the supply of RATs (“a lot of them will get here in a few weeks”), governments of both political sides are now arguing overwhelmingly against any new forms of economic support, even amid signs that the economy has slowed. to the lowest levels seen in last year’s delta outbreak.

The argument goes that economic stagnation is not the result of government-imposed measures, and therefore there is no responsibility on them to provide support.

It is hard not to feel that the references to the peak in cases, now in New South Wales and in other states in the coming weeks, reflect a stressful view of governments that this is just something to bear, and then it will go away.

And it may be. Only to be replaced by another manifestation of the crisis for which we are not prepared.

Laura Tingle is the chief political correspondent at 7.30.

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